Colette M. Jenkins

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. is among the prominent African-American leaders in the United Church of Christ coming to Cleveland to speak during the denomination’s Black History Month celebration.


Wright became a controversial figure to many Americans during the 2008 presidential campaign. Because President Obama and his family had attended Wright’s church when they lived in Chicago, excerpts from some of Wright’s sermons became points of contention.


Obama eventually denounced some of Wright’s statements, but many scholars and clerics have defended Wright, saying the statements publicized during the political campaign were taken out of context.


Other speakers will be the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, the Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler Sr., U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood and scholar and artist David Driskell.


The five will deliver messages during noon services each Wednesday in February at the Cleveland-based denomination’s Amistad Chapel, 700 Prospect Ave. in the city’s Gateway district.


“The diversity of African-American leaders we celebrate during Black History Month, including those who will lead worship services in the UCC Church House, possess extraordinarily different backgrounds and senses of place,” said Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life. “My colleagues on the Black History Month Committee sought significant and diverse African-American leaders to lead a dynamic worship series.”


Each February, the United Church of Christ sponsors special services and workshops to highlight the contributions and accomplishments of African-Americans.


The UCC takes pride in being a multicultural, multiracial, open and affirming denomination. It was formed in 1957 when the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged.


The denomination’s history includes 11 signers of the Declaration of Independence, abolitionists who aided the Amistad slave ship captives and the founding of hundreds of schools for freed slaves in the South after the Civil War. The denomination is the first mainline church to ordain an African-American (1785), a woman (1853) and an openly gay pastor (1972).


Its Amistad Chapel was named to commemorate the bravery of the slave ship captives in striking out for their freedom and of the denomination’s abolitionists, who did something unpopular in their time by helping the captives.


“Because we are a distinct and diverse community of Christians that come together as one church, joining faith and action, we annually celebrate Black History Month,” said Ann Poston, UCC director of communications.


Black starts series


?Black, the UCC’s general minister and president, who is based at the Cleveland headquarters, will begin the Wednesday series. During his ministry, Black has been associate minister, pastor and conference minister in the UCC and assistant chaplain at Brown University and a lecturer in the Field Education Department at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.


Black’s commitment to a universal Christian church, equal justice, African-American empowerment and community empowerment has shaped his ministry. He hopes that his message will give his audience an overview of how African-American music reflects the history of African-Americans in the United States.


“I hope to set the tone for the series by presenting something that will engage people. I have an incredible vocalist who is going to help me with my presentation,” Black said. “She will sing several selections and I will share how the artistic expressions illustrate what African–Americans were going through at that time in our history.”


Sadler, who will appear Feb. 8, is pastor of Mount Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland. He has served UCC congregations in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Chicago and is considered an expert in the field of African-American church growth.


He has served as the host and executive producer of an award-winning Christian talk show in New Orleans and performed in theater and on concert stage, showcasing his bass voice.


He is the former minister of evangelism for African-American and Native-American Indian Church Development in the UCC and serves as president and chairman of Creative Arts Ministries, overseeing the nonprofit ministry consulting firm’s efforts to use the creative arts to proclaim the gospel.


?Hood, who will speak Feb. 15, is U.S. district judge for Eastern Michigan in Detroit. The Columbus native was appointed to her post in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.


She is active in several community and professional organizations, including the Detroit Bar Association, where in 1993 she became the first African-American female president. She is the wife of the Rev. Nicholas Hood III, senior pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit and past moderator of both the UCC’s General Synod and its Michigan Conference.


?Driskell, scheduled for Feb. 22, is an authority on African-American art and a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. The Eatonton, Ga., native was honored in 2000 as one of 12 recipients of the National Humanities Medal. In 1998, the University of Maryland honored his 44-year career as an artist, educator, philanthropist, collector and art historian by establishing the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora.


?Wright, who will speak Feb. 29, is pastor emeritus of Trinity UCC in Chicago. During his 36-year tenure, the predominantly black congregation grew from 250 to 6,000 members, becoming the largest church in the predominantly white UCC denomination. As a pastor, he combined his studies of African traditional religions, African music, African-American music and the African-American religious tradition with his studies of Judeo-Christian thought to create ministries that addressed the needs of the community.


He continues to lecture at universities and seminaries where his four books of sermons are widely used. He also spends time preaching and leading study tours to Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean.


In addition to the worship series, the UCC is offering workshops and brown bag lunches in February. Those include sessions on black women in art, how to trace a family history and a soul food sampler catered by Phil the Fire. For information, visit www.ucc.org.


Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or cjenkins@thebeaconjournal.com.