In the church of Obama

Jacob Dlamini

I recently attended a church service on the south side of Chicago in the US Midwest. It was without doubt one of the most moving services I have sat through in a long time, with a sermon so considered, so fiery it is likely to stay with me forever.

It was the kind of service that reminds sceptical Christians like me that there is more to life than our material concerns. But it was not simply the service that stood out for me. It was the totality of the experience. Let me share some of it with you.

The first thing that struck me about the outside of the cream-coloured church building was the flags hanging outside it, flags in the black-green-and-gold colours of black liberation in the US, the same colours of South Africa’s African National Congress.

The second thing that stood out for me was the many American men and women in traditional African attire. The clothes came in all kinds of material and colours: from the earthy brown, thick woollen get-up that calls to mind the ancient kingdom of Mali, the flowing shiny robes beloved of Nigerians to dashikis made popular by black revolutionaries in the 1960s. There were also a fair number of people in what we might call their Sunday best: western-style suits for men and formal dresses for women.

The third remarkable thing about the church was that while it is an essentially black congregation, there were many white visitors on the day that I attended, including a young man from Italy.

Two pews in front of me sat a white family from a sister congregation somewhere else in the American Midwest. White faces were seated everywhere inside the church and some in fact looked like regulars.

The two-story megachurch is, from what I could make out, built in the shape of an octagon. The pulpit was placed slightly off-centre and, behind the pulpit, sat the church’s choir, with each member (including a middle-aged white man) in traditional African attire.

Positioned between the choir and the pulpit was the church band, a professional-sounding outfit that boasted two keyboardists, a bass player, a drummer and, if memory serves, a piano player. Some of the church’s songs were accompanied by dancing from the Sunday school troupe, young boys and girls clad in all-white uniforms.

I must have visited on a lucky Sunday because there were baptisms scheduled for the day. The baptisms were an interesting mix of conventional Christian theology and African mythology.

The baptised babies, each accompanied by his or her parents and a godparent, were each given a taste of pepper, salt, vinegar and honey by church elders. This was so they may know life can be both bitter and sweet, explained Reverend Otis Moss, the church’s new pastor. It is an ancient West African practice carried over into north America and kept alive by African-Americans.

Then came, after some singing, the sermon. Titled The Tragedy of a Successful Father, the sermon was about the failure of fathers to balance their public and private lives.

Reading from the book of Samuel, the pastor used the story of King David’s failure to be a proper father and mentor to his son Absalom to talk about the challenges that faced fathers. The pastor said David had been a model but not a mentor to Absalom and that this had led to Absalom’s death. The pastor then brought this to the present by talking about the failure of black men in the US to serve as mentors to their children.

The pastor said black America was crying out for: “BMWs – black men worshipping; BMPs – black men praying.” It was a stirring ceremony.

The highlight came when the pastor invited BMWs to join him at the centre of the church and to commit themselves to respecting women and serving as mentors to their children. He asked the men who joined him in the centre of the church to commit to being responsible and sensible adults and, most importantly, to fight racism and injustice.

What is the name of this church, you ask? Why, it is Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama’s former church. As we all know, Obama left Trinity unceremoniously in early 2008 after the church’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, who has since retired from the pulpit, almost derailed Obama’s presidential bid with incendiary comments about American politics and the US’s treatment of black people, not to mention withering sermons he had given over a 30-year period.

But Obama was a member of the church for about 20 years and it is fair to assume that he absorbed his church’s commitment to justice and love of Africa during his time there. Obama takes his faith seriously and it is gratifying to think that he will take a strong sense of justice and individual responsibility to the White House with him.

For me, the best part about Trinity was seeing the proud display of the church’s awareness of and commitment to Africa. I know that Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is an American president first and foremost and that his skin colour has nothing to do with how he might approach his foreign policy. Why should it?

Still, it was edifying to be inside a church that Obama and his family attended for 20 years and to hear first-hand the church’s commitment to social justice and personal responsibility. Let’s pray Obama places those two principles at the centre of his policy towards Africa.

Jacob Dlamini is a PhD student in History at Yale University, a columnist for The Weekender, and former political editor of Business Day.