Some 20 parishioners at First United Church said recently that, at times, they have disagreed with what their pastor has proclaimed while delivering his sermon from the pulpit. Nevertheless, they continue to attend services at the church and said the national attention being paid to Sen. Barack Obama’s former minister has been a sensational waste of time.
“I take what I like and leave the rest,” Laura Cleveland said. “However, if it makes me too uncomfortable, it probably hit home.”
Twenty-six congregants from First United in Forest Park – which shares a denomination with Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and the now controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright – agreed to answer questions on their relationship with Rev. Cliff DiMascio, who has led the local church for more than two decades.
Churchgoers described the flap over Obama’s relationship with Wright as a fabrication of politics and media hype now that the Illinois senator is running for president. But they were divided almost evenly as to whether Wright or the press was to blame for the controversy.
Those who thought the media sensationalized the story said it was a diversion from more relevant topics, and that Wright’s words were taken out of context or were overplayed. Worshipers who thought Wright was out of line accused the reverend of seeking the limelight.
Parishioners at First United almost unanimously agreed that Obama’s character cannot be linked to what his pastor said years ago. Twenty-four of the 26 interviewed said Wright’s words had no effect on whether they would vote for the junior senator in November.
The same goes for their priest.
“[The pastor] is his own man,” Sheryl Marinier, a longtime First United member said. “He … does not speak for me.”
Most of the parishioners said their pastor’s job is to speak God’s word with authority, even if they don’t always accept that authority.
Ashton Hahn said he expects a priest to challenge his thinking.
“That’s how you grow,” Hahn said.
DiMascio said the “prophetic tradition,” which is represented in the Bible and embodied by Wright, should be a part of every preacher’s arsenal. He quoted Reinhold Niebuhr’s statement that God “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” He referred to the Old Testament prophets who warned God’s people that if they didn’t change their ways, their nation would be devastated.
Change, said DiMascio, is what church should be about.
“Some people want to have in church a cozy, warm, comfortable place that doesn’t challenge them,” DiMascio said. “If the purpose of preaching is for people to be transformed, there has to be some provocation. We have to push them out of their nest. I really think church members play life small.”
DiMascio’s theory is that if churchgoers take risks and discover how trustworthy God is, they will begin to hear calls to move out from their self-constructed havens.
“The real fear is that if they begin to shine, they don’t know what God is going to call them to do, and it scares the heck out of people,” DiMascio said.
Several parishioners said they understand that people – even priests – are bound to make mistakes. Their commitment to any given church is grounded by the knowledge that no one can speak infallibly ex cathedra for the whole church. Each is responsible for finding their spiritual path.
“Everyone has a different opinion and that’s OK,” Steve Fenner said.
Such talk is true to the spirit of the denomination, said DiMascio. The United Church of Christ, he explained, has no dogma and no creeds. It only requires that people believe in God, the Holy Spirit and in Jesus, who came to save people from their sins. Other than that it’s up to each individual to do their own spiritual work. Whether they do that, he acknowledged, is another question.
DiMascio said he believes the most important factor in why people remain faithful is that they trust him to care about them. His authority comes less from his status as an educated, ordained pastor and more from the relationships he has formed with his parishioners, he said. When he started his ministry at First United 21 years ago a mentor gave him some sound advice, he said.
“If your people know you love them, you can tell them just about anything,” DiMascio said.
Many of the members surveyed agreed with their pastor that relationships comprise the glue that holds their faith community together. Laurie McAndrews said she remains a member even when she disagrees with her pastor.
“He is human and has his own opinion,” McAndrews said. “People may not agree on everything, but I know my pastor is a good man.”
With respect to the scandal surrounding Wright, DiMascio said he’s most upset by the lack of context. What Trinity’s pastor said in those statements, he argued, was addressed to his congregation alone, a gathering of people with whom he had accrued a great deal of relational capital. Wright led the church for 36 years before his recent retirement and helped grow the congregation to include some 10,000 members.
“What the media did was to conduct opposition research, find his most inflammatory statements and take them out of context, ignoring all the good he has done on the south side,” DiMascio said.