New Pastor to Head Obama's 8,000-Member Chicago Church

By: Sophia Tareen
By: Sophia Tareen


CHICAGO (AP) -- When the Rev. Otis Moss III takes to the pulpit before a congregation that includes Barack Obama, he's as likely to preach about Tupac Shakur or one of his favorite authors as he is the Apostle Paul.

The 37-year-old "hip-hop pastor," as he's called by congregants, will become the head of Trinity United Church of Christ in June, taking over at a time of turmoil for the 8,000-member church, the nation's largest United Church of Christ congregation,

Moss' ascent follows the retirement of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom Obama angrily denounced Tuesday for his "divisive and destructive" remarks.

It's a shift from more than three decades under Wright, a preacher born of the civil-rights era whose fiery comments about Sept. 11, HIV/AIDS and other issues have placed the church under a media microscope.

"Pastor Moss has inherited the repercussions of an attack he had nothing to do with," said Brenda Salter McNeil, president of an Oak Park, Ill.-based company that works on diversity issues in Christian organizations. "He has to pastor a people through it."

Moss, an assistant pastor at Trinity for two years, is a Yale Divinity School graduate whose father also is a prominent preacher and former adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. His sermons often feature quotes and stories of the late civil rights leader, who officiated at his parents' wedding.

At the same time, the married father of two is a popular leader known for his contemporary style and ability to draw youth to church events.

"He understands that he is ministering to what he calls a `post-soul generation,' a generation that has grown up outside of a context of the traditional church," said Moss' father, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. "He speaks to a generation struggling with all these realities."

The younger Moss declined requests for interviews with The Associated Press, but answered several questions by e-mail. He wrote that his father "continues to be a major influence" in his life and that his main message is "love and transformation."

He declined to answer questions about Wright or Obama. Obama's campaign declined a request for comment on Moss.

"We have received unprecedented scrutiny that has taken its toll on our members, staff and our senior pastor," Moss recently said of his church. "Lately our sacred space has been seized upon and compromised. All of us are standing with Trinity during this challenging time."

Trinity has long stood out among churches nationwide for its social work on problems including HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, cancer and drug abuse. The church calls itself "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian."

Like Wright, Moss espouses 1960s black liberation theology, which applies the Gospel to contemporary struggles against racial oppression.

Moss "represents the tradition of orators in the black church that uses the pulpit in a way to speak clearly and compellingly in a way that causes people to be energized, inspired, but also mobilized," Salter McNeil said.

Born and raised in and around Cincinnati and Cleveland, Moss came to Chicago from the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., where he spent seven years as pastor.

"He was like a magnet; he drew people," said Brenda Morton, an assistant pastor at Tabernacle.

Moss played basketball with young people and checked report cards. An avid reader, he was so well-liked that congregants wanted to know what caught his attention. So Morton started printing the titles - such as works by Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston and civil rights leader Howard Thurman - in church bulletins.

In 2002, Moss won the Harrington Prize for promising young pastors, awarded annually by Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

"He's an outstanding preacher," said Presbyterian's president, John Griffith. "The way he exegetes scripture, it's done extremely well. His diction, his presentation, it's dignified, yet powerful."

In his Easter sermon at Trinity, Moss stood in front of the choir and talked of "ghetto prophets."

He recited lyrics from Shakur's "Thugz Mansion," calling the late rapper "neither a saint nor demon, but all human."

He mocked those who dismiss rap music, saying it isn't "neatly packaged for our middle-class digestion" and rappers shouldn't be overlooked because of "coarse language and ragged subject-verb agreement" or a "proclivity for ghetto-istic conduct."

Over the next hour, he weaved in the Gospel of Luke and current events, his smooth, deep voice erupting twice with shouting in the stadium-like church.

Despite his ease at the pulpit, Moss didn't always want to be a pastor.

His childhood ambition, influenced by Spike Lee, was to become a filmmaker, said his father, pastor at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland.

"He used to come in my study and browse and ask questions about various books and sometimes thumb through them," the elder Moss said. "He grew up with a special attachment to books and writing."

It wasn't until one day during track practice at Morehouse College in Atlanta that he felt a calling to the church.

"An inner voice spoke so loudly to him that it was obvious that this was it, an authentic experience," the elder Moss said.

While Wright remains in the spotlight, Moss III and congregants are focused on preparations for Wright's official retirement on May 31, said Rev. Joan Harrell, a Trinity spokeswoman.

"Pastor Moss is focusing on the pastoral duties of his members during this time of heightened interest on Trinity," she said. "He's engaging the congregation to be prayerful and continue to have their faith in God."

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On the Net:

Trinity United Church of Christ: http://www.tucc.org

The Truth About Trinity: http://www.truthabouttrinity.blogspot.com

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