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Wright electrifies Tampa church with sermon

TAMPA — Inside the Bible-Based Church of Temple Terrace on Monday night, the church swelled with music as members, caught up in the spirit, sang about the glory of God.

Some members lifted their arms high. Others clapped. And some buried their faces deep inside their hands.

For the second day in the row, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. took to the pulpit. In town to lead the church's revival, Wright preached from the second chapter of the Gospel of John. He focused on the story of the wedding feast when Jesus, an invited guest, turned water into wine.

"When you invite the Lord into your home and your heart and your hurts, expect the unexpected," Wright said. "The Lord will make you look good when you ain't had nothing to do with it. That's bad English and good theology."

The packed congregation responded with appreciation as Wright's legendary oratory skills — a mix of humor, scholarly teaching, personal reflection and a dash of scathing criticism — were on full display.

Although he mentioned having been hurt by the criticism and the glare of the media spotlight during the presidential campaign, Wright largely steered clear of politics, policy and the kind of incendiary comments that landed him at the center of controversy last spring.

His 30-minute sermon was a treatise on the power of God. Wright talked of overcoming depression and of focusing less on oneself and praying for others.

"It was like a balm to my soul," said Tanya Jackson, 33, of Temple Terrace. Jackson had been grieving for her grandmother, who died during the Christmas holidays.

"He said to focus on helping others," she said. "I hadn't expected to enjoy his sermon this much."

'Faithful friend'

The visit marks the first time Wright has preached in Tampa since the church's leaders canceled his scheduled appearance in March amid safety concerns for the congregation.

Wright, who has been visiting Tampa churches for more than two decades, is President-elect Barack Obama's former pastor.

He came to the attention of the national media last spring when excerpts of his sermons surfaced on the Internet. Wright has said his remarks were taken out of context. Amid the controversy, Obama broke ties with Wright, who had been his pastor for 20 years, and with his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Early Monday, the Rev. Earl B. Mason Sr., the Tampa church's pastor, said he was honored to have Wright lead the revival.

"He's been a faithful friend to our fellowship since its inception, and he has come to do what we were doing before we had to change dates," Mason said. "We're just going to have church."

Overflow crowds

Since excerpts from Wright's sermons sparked widespread criticism last year, many of the preacher's engagements around the country were canceled.

The St. Paul AME Church in Macon, Ga., booked Wright for its fall revival in October. But Wright pulled out rather than reignite controversy and potentially hurt Obama before election day, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Ronald Slaughter.

Instead, Wright went to the Macon church last month. So, too, did a group of protestors led by a disc jockey from a local radio station.

Slaughter was not deterred. The media attention helped to publicize his revival, he said.

"The people that heard Dr. Wright were thoroughly impressed to the point where he preached here on Monday night, and Tuesday and Wednesday, you couldn't get in the church," Slaughter said. "People were amazed at his wonderful oratory skills. He's a genius when it comes to Biblical scripture."

Slaughter said he hired off-duty police officers to handle the overflow crowd, a racially diverse group that included a college administrator and the local mayor, who is white. Some people drove hours to attend, Slaughter said.

Return visit planned

He plans to host Wright again in the fall. "Everybody needs to hear the Jeremiah Wright of today, not the Jeremiah Wright that they heard for 30 seconds," Slaughter said.

At the Tampa church, leaders hired two off-duty police officers to help with crowd control, Laura McElroy, a Police Department spokeswoman said.

Mason, who has hosted Wright many times over the last 20 years, said he has never had a speaker draw as much attention as the embattled preacher.

"Quite honestly, I'm surprised," he said. "I'm surprised that there is any interest in anybody other than God, worshipping and what we do. And we do it all the time."

Times staff writers Elisabeth Parker and Janet Zink and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Wright electrifies Tampa church with sermon 01/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 10:59pm]

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