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Barack Obama: Putting faith out front

How the Illinois senator came to embrace religion in his life.

(Page 2 of 4)

After his mother was remarried, to an Indonesian Muslim, and the family moved to Indonesia, Obama went first to a Catholic academy and then a public Muslim school open to students of all beliefs.

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But he was largely indifferent toward religion until he moved to Chicago in 1985 for a job organizing impoverished South Side residents in campaigns for better jobs, schools, and housing. As the recent college graduate went from church to church to enlist clergy in his causes, he heard an oft-repeated refrain: What church do you belong to?

"He really came here with a very strong passion about how can we change things, and he understood the churches as being a vehicle for doing that," recalls the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of the Saint Sabina Church, a Catholic church on the South Side, who has known Obama since his early days in Chicago. But he also "realized that with some churches there would be a credibility issue if he were organizing churches but didn't have a home church."

'Against "middleclassness" '

Trinity United Church of Christ occupies a tan brick building on West 95th Street across railroad tracks from a public housing project. Since becoming pastor in 1972, Wright grew its membership from a few dozen to more than 8,500. He wore African dashikis, planted a "Free South Africa" sign on the church lawn, and demanded tolerance of gays and lesbians, a maverick stance for a black church.

The church sprouted more than 70 ministries, from AIDS counseling and African cultural exchange to a "manhood" program providing father figures to children of single mothers. Oprah Winfrey and the singer Mavis Staples have worshiped there, as have people on welfare.

While other black megachurch leaders like Creflo Dollar and T.D. Jakes were preaching prosperity gospel, the idea that God rewards the faithful with financial success, Wright asked worshipers to endorse a "Black Value System." One of its precepts is a disavowal of "middleclassness," a selfish pursuit of money and status without giving back to the larger black community.

Wright also preached black liberation theology, an outgrowth of the civil rights era that sees the Bible, particularly the exodus from Egyptian slavery, as a parable of the struggle for black freedom.

However incongruously, Trinity became the largest congregation in The United Church of Christ, a predominantly white denomination known for its liberal politics and steepled churches in small New England towns. The UCC, or Congregational church, as it is also called, was the first mainline Protestant church to ordain an African-American (1785), a woman (1853), and an openly gay man (1972), and the first major Christian denomination to endorse same-sex marriage (2005).

Wright impressed Obama, and by 1988 the younger man found himself in the pews, listening to parishioners clap and cry out as Wright spoke of "the audacity of hope" in times of suffering, Obama writes in his bestselling 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father." In Wright's words that day, Obama glimpsed the deeper meaning he had been searching for in his work with the South Side's poor, who often had little to go on but faith.

"In that single note – hope! – I heard something else," Obama wrote. "At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story."

Four years later, after returning to Chicago from Harvard Law School, Obama joined Trinity and walked down the aisle in a formal commitment of faith. Wright later married Obama and his wife, Michelle, and blessed the births of their two children.

By his own admission, Obama's conversion was "a choice and not an epiphany." It owed as much to spiritual yearning as to a recognition of the power of the black church to change lives and society.

"What moved me was the role all the congregations I worked with played in the life of the people I was working with," Obama said in an e-mail to the Monitor. "What touched me was how faith bolstered them against heartache and disappointment and kept them going."