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Leaving church tough for many, not just Obama

It took weeks of political pounding before Barack Obama finally renounced his membership in Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee spoke of the anguish of leaving his church family, where the Rev. Jeremiah Wright had given incendiary and racially charged sermons.

Peg and Bob Green of St. Petersburg are empathetic, even though they're Republicans.

"We're not Obama supporters, but in this instance, I feel for him and his family,'' said Peg Green, who left First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg three years ago for St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

"I know it's a decision that's not as easy as some may think.''

Others agree. Leaving a congregation or changing religious affiliation can be anguishing, say some who have done so.

Even so, a recent study suggests more Americans are swapping churches and religious affiliations. The current religious marketplace is characterized by constant movement, with every major religious group simultaneously gaining and losing adherents, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Rabbi Stephen Moch of Tarpon Springs' Congregation B'nai Emmunah has seen a number of departures during his three decades as a leader of Reform Jewish congregations. Unhappy members struggle with conflicting forces, he said.

One is loyalty to a congregation. The other is the disenchantment that eventually causes them to leave, be it unhappiness with the spiritual or lay leadership, Moch said.

Obama belonged to Trinity for about 20 years. Wright married him and his wife, Michelle, and baptized his daughters.

Green says it's particularly heart-wrenching to leave one's church if, like the Obamas, children are involved.

"This is a big deal to take those little girls away from their church,'' she said, adding, however, that she wasn't excusing Obama for failing to repudiate his pastor's remarks sooner.

Another reason for departures — particularly in the Episcopal Church, where a gay man was ordained recently as a bishop — is disagreement over sexuality. For the Rev. Manish Mishra, who is gay, the conflict was with his Orthodox Hindu upbringing.

"Emotionally wrenching is an understatement,'' he said. "I was on the brink of suicide. Trying to live up to the expectations of Hinduism and my Indian culture were so important to me.''

He is now a pastor at St. Petersburg's Unitarian Universalist Church, which embraces all beliefs.

Tim Childers, 32, felt he was betraying his old congregation when he decided to join St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico. He grew up attending services and school at Brandon's Immanuel Lutheran Church. "I had to deal with it internally,'' he said.

Others, like Ann Haendel of St. Pete Beach, still struggle. A longtime member of Temple Beth-El, a Reform Jewish congregation in St. Petersburg, she has become involved in activities at nearby Congregation B'nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue.

Now she thinks she's ready to make the break: "I am finding it very difficult, because I feel this connection still to Temple Beth-El."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727)892-2283.

Leaving church tough for many, not just Obama 06/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 1:28pm]
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