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Obama's pastor has Tampa ties

Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. has made annual visits to Tampa for years.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. has made annual visits to Tampa for years.

TAMPA — Angela Judge listens to talk show hosts and TV pundits who dismiss the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. as an angry black man, spewing hatred in America.

She has cried and prayed for it all to end.

The man in the TV clips, portrayed as Sen. Barack Obama's "controversial pastor," is not the same man she came to know watching him preach in Tampa, where he has long-standing ties.

For years, Wright has made an annual pilgrimage here, packing sanctuaries at two large, predominantly African-American churches: Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrollwood and Bible-Based Fellowship Church of Temple Terrace, which draw members from throughout the Tampa Bay area. Even those who aren't members have flocked to his local revivals.

Indeed, Wright, 66, is the featured speaker at a revival Tuesday through Thursday of next week, in celebration of the Temple Terrace church's 10th anniversary.

The Democratic presidential candidate has come under fire for his association with Wright and in a speech Tuesday he disavowed inflammatory statements Wright has made.

But the Rev. Earl B. Mason Sr., who lovingly refers to Wright as "Daddy J.," said Wednesday that Wright was still expected to come and would be welcomed, as always.

"Tampa, Florida, is not hostile to Jeremiah Wright, not based on an article or not based on somebody else's opinion," Mason said. "Tampa, Florida, has been blessed by Jeremiah for well over 15 consecutive years."

Wright's link to the area started 25 years ago when Mason and the Rev. Arthur T. Jones took part in a religious conference in Orlando as part of the Florida Mass Choir. Wright, slight in stature but bold and dynamic in his delivery, took to the pulpit at the conference. Mason, who had never heard the name before, would never forget it.

After that, Wright was asked to speak at the choir's retreats and, in years to come, at the two churches.

Before establishing the Temple Terrace church, Mason was co-pastor with Jones at the Carrollwood church. Today, the congregations are independent of each other and among the larger predominantly black churches in the area. Jones and Mason said they don't keep official membership tallies, but the Carrollwood church's cathedral seats 1,700 and the Temple Terrace church seats several hundred and has two services each Sunday.

Wright gained a loyal following among local Christians like Judge, a member of the Carrollwood church. People would often arrive early, expecting a packed house. His affable personality and intellectual, yet thunderous, approach to Scripture are signature to his style. He is known to sprinkle his messages with some points on social justice.

'Like an uncle'

Once when she traveled to Chicago, Judge visited Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ. He remarked from the pulpit that there was a visitor from Tampa. After service, they chatted and joked for 2½ hours.

"I understand what Obama meant when he said he's like an uncle," said Judge, 45.

Deborah Austin, now a member of a New Tampa church, said she was first exposed to Wright in Carrollwood. Eventually, he became her mentor, helping and challenging her as she worked toward a doctorate in interpersonal-family communications. He often talked about the need to help oppressed people worldwide.

"I have been praying for him, thinking good thoughts of him," Austin said.

The excerpts from Wright's sermons aired on television have been called unpatriotic at best. In one, he appears to blame the United States for the Sept. 11 attacks. In another he says the government is responsible for the spread of HIV.

The comments didn't shock many black people who say Wright's critics are essentially attacking the black church, where African-Americans for years have always felt safe in voicing concerns about social issues, said Gwendolyn Simmons, assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida.

"It is a place where black people have been able to say what they felt," Simmons said.

Judge said she has heard Wright's controversial statements before.

What about context?

"I have been in services when Dr. Wright has gotten to that fiery point," Judge said. She wasn't bothered because she heard his words in context and many times agreed. Sometimes, she didn't. But, Judge said, who agrees with everything someone else says?

"Jeremiah is my friend and my mentor and he's my daddy," said Mason, 56. "I was angry to see someone take snippets of a 2003 sermon and use it in 2008, and use it to discredit a man like Wright, a church like Trinity and a campaign like Obama's."

Jones said his Carrollwood church and Wright's church have both engaged in outreach in Africa. Bible-Based has built schools and churches in the continent, Jones said.

While the "black liberation theology" Wright preaches is not at the forefront of sermons at Bible-Based, black values are taught and upheld there, Jones said. Wright, he said, will "stand in the pulpit and say it just like I'll stand in the pulpit and say it."

If people want to know what Wright is all about, Jones said, "buy his books, read his sermons. He is a speaker of truth."

Obama's pastor has Tampa ties 03/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 6:40pm]

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