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Obama's former pastor won't appear at Tampa church

TAMPA — The first public appearance of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. since his fiery oratory became a political problem for Sen. Barack Obama was canceled by a local church just hours before he was to speak Tuesday.

Wright was scheduled to preach three nights this week at Bible-Based Fellowship Church of Temple Terrace, where he had visited many times.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Earl Mason, called a hasty news conference Tuesday afternoon to announce he had asked Wright "to stay in Chicago." He said that the appearance had become a media event instead of a celebration of the church's anniversary and that he wasn't satisfied with the security arrangements.

"Rev. Wright is a father to this church, and it is sad that we cannot have him here to celebrate with us," Mason said to a cluster of reporters that included CNN, Good Morning America and USA Today.

The Obama campaign issued a brief comment late Tuesday when asked about the cancellation. "It was a decision made by the church," said spokesman Bill Burton.

Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which Obama has attended for 20 years, made national headlines last month. Snippets of his sermons from 2003 in which he shouted such phrases as "God damn America" were posted on the Internet and picked up by national news organizations.

For nearly two weeks, the pastor's incendiary remarks and Obama's efforts to put them in perspective have been the subject of intense debate. This drew visitors from as far away as Canada to hear Wright speak Tuesday.

Roly Harris of Barrie, Ontario, turned up in the church parking lot Tuesday. He had heard that the controversial preacher wasn't going to appear but came to Bible-Based Fellowship Church anyway to see if they would have a service of any kind.

"I came down for the Blue Jays spring training, but I was really hoping to see him," Harris said.

Nelson Hay, who drove up from Venice, was teary-eyed about not being able to see Wright after seeing him preach last year in New York.

"The United Church of Christ is 99 percent white. It is so shameful that he's being portrayed as racist and anti-American," he said. "He's a powerful preacher and he's never offended me."

And Hay was only one in a line of people mobbed by national and local TV crews as they stepped out of their cars at the church.

Several Bible-Based members didn't even stop to avoid being interviewed.

The extra attention created new security concerns for the church, Mason said, even though Wright has been speaking at revivals in the Tampa Bay area for more than 10 years.

The church decided to enhance security to deal with the attention and contacted all the agencies in Hillsborough to coordinate, he said.

But the pastor said the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, told him about 3 p.m. Monday its deputies would not be involved in securing the revival. He said that was a factor in his decision to cancel plans.

"We asked for security on several levels, and one of the key agencies decided not to assist, for reasons that I am not certain of," he told reporters.

Not so, said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

"Contrary to statements made by Rev. Mason, at no time did the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office refuse to offer any security for the event,'' she said.

Carter said the church asked the Sheriff's Office for help on Monday, but the officer in charge of off-duty employment told Mason the church fell within the jurisdiction of the Tampa police. The officer referred the church to city police and said if Tampa police wanted extra help, the Sheriff's Office would provide it.

Knowing the magnitude of the event, however, sheriff's Chief Deputy Jose Docobo called Tampa police Monday and asked if the Sheriff's Office could assist with off-duty security. When he didn't get a response, he called again today, Carter said.

"We were assured that it was not needed and that it was taken care of," she said. They stood ready to help if asked, she said.

Efforts to reach Mason Tuesday evening about the divergent accounts were unsuccessful.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the department was well prepared for Wright's visit.

"TPD officers assessed the location, gathered intelligence on the event and put a plan into place," the statement said.

"We recommended the organizers hire extra duty officers to handle parking issues and they complied," she said.

The department was ready to handle security from the airport arrival to departure, she said. "We were surprised to hear of the cancellation."

Jim and Verlee Clinefielder, who came from Sun City Center to see Wright, said that as avid Obama supporters they came out to give Wright a fair shake.

"It's so sad they had to cancel," Verlee Clinefielder said. "But people are crazy these days."

Wright is still scheduled to be honored by the Brite Divinity School's National Black Church Studies Forum State of the Black Church Awards and Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 28 and 29.

According to Fox News, the event's location has been changed for security reasons.

Times staff writers Justin George and Adam C. Smith and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or
rmitchell@sptimes.com.

Obama's former pastor won't appear at Tampa church 03/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 12:47pm]

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