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By Diana Keough
Chicago — Otis Moss III is striking in a raw way. Broad-faced,
boyish and slender, the 36-year-old preacher looks more like a man who
is consumed with fashion than the fate of sinners.
But when he steps into the large pulpit of Trinity United Church of
Christ — the South Side church that presidential candidate Barack Obama
calls home — and begins to preach, all eyes are drawn to him.
“JE-sus is the one who puts the devil in his p-la-ce,” Moss says,
stretching “place” into three syllables. The choir standing behind him,
more than 100 strong, seems to fade away. Moss holds a microphone in one
hand and moves his free hand to the beat of his sermon. He seems
incapable of uttering a dead sentence.
For the next hour, Moss rolls Scripture and hip-hop lyrics around in
the same thoughts as he criticizes the mindset of young black males
who’d rather play basketball than learn physics. He goes after Bush
administration policies, the war in Iraq and the United States’
free-market economy.
Such talk in any of the white churches across town would make the
congregation squirm. Not so at Trinity, where the words are met with
exuberant clapping, standing ovations and loud exclamations of “Yes,
pastor!”
Named one of “The Twenty to Watch” ministers under 40 by The African
American Pulpit magazine and one of the most influential
African-American religious leaders by the Web site Beliefnet.com, Moss
was handpicked by Trinity’s senior pastor, Jeremiah Wright, to succeed
him in 2008 because of Moss’ growing reputation in reaching inner-city
youth.
In the 2007 book, “Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation,”
Moss wrote that the church is a place where young people should be able
to see themselves in a positive light. “Most don’t,” he said, speaking
by phone from his church office.
That’s why Trinity’s stained-glass windows depict biblical
characters with black faces, and why he says the Bible study curriculum
and every sermon should affirm black youngsters’ race, heritage and that
God loves them.
The predominantly black Trinity boasts more than 10,000 members and
is the largest church within the traditionally white United Church of
Christ denomination.
Some critics accuse Trinity’s motto — “Unashamedly Black and
Unapologetically Christian” — reflects a racially exclusive theology.
The church’s “Black Value System” asks members to affirm their
commitment to God, the “black community,” the “black family” and the
“black work ethic.”
Moss said Greek Orthodox, Irish Catholics and German Lutherans can
connect their faith to their culture without being criticized. “Blacks
are the only group of people denied the ability to reach back to their
roots, to connect to our culture to define who we are,” he said.
Moss’ path to the high-profile Chicago pulpit completes a circle of
sorts. He’s the youngest son of Edwina and Otis Moss Jr., considered
Cleveland’s “First Family of Faith.”
His father, pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in
Cleveland, remains known for mixing God and politics in a way that made
many white people uneasy. Like his father, Moss embraces “black
liberation theology,” which interprets the Bible thru the lens of the
struggles and oppression of black people.
“The pre-eminent ethic of Jesus Christ, his inaugural sermon, is the
Spirit of the Lord is upon you to preach the good news to the poor, to
set up liberty, to set the captives free, to allow the mind to see,'”
the younger Moss said. “I believe that is the mission of the church.”
It’s one of many things the father and son have in common.
“The church has to be the conscience, the voice for the hopeless,
the marginalized, the disinherited,” the elder Moss said. “Dr. King used
to say that the church has to be the headlight, not the taillight.”
While father and son’s theological, social and political views
mirror each other, their mannerisms and preaching styles do not. The
elder Moss speaks methodically, his diction formal. The younger Moss is
stretched tight, like the membrane of a drum, exuding a tense energy.
Listening to him preach is like hearing a recording of his father, the
tape stuck on fast-forward.
Fresh out of Yale Divinity School, he took a job working with a
group of former gang members and drug dealers in Connecticut. When Moss
talked about “Amazing Grace” and one man asked, “Who is she?”, he
realized that trying to use “Christian-speak” to reach the disconnected
and unchurched was a waste of time. Moss found using hip-hop lyrics was
the perfect middle ground, and a ministry was born.
He moved to a church in Georgia, which grew from 125 to 2,100
members during his nine-year tenure. He planned to stay in Georgia, and
thought the only thing that might pull him away was stepping into his
father’s pulpit in Cleveland.
In 2005, Wright invited Moss to come to Chicago to guest preach at
Trinity. During the visit, Wright asked him to consider taking over.
Moss thought he was kidding. After a year of prayer in Georgia, Moss and
his wife packed their bags for Chicago.
“The more I began to reflect on it, the more I realized that I would
be going to Cleveland to support my father because I am his son, not
because God was saying, `Go to Cleveland,'” Moss said.
Moss said the biggest problem within the black church is the chasm
between the “civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation,” he
said.
“It’s a gap of language, values. It’s a gap in the best tactics on
how to transform the black community. It’s an intellectual gap in many
ways,” he said. “There has to be a dialogue between those generations
(so) that you don’t cast aside one generation or the other, or one
generation doesn’t demonize the other.”
Father and son liken the differences between them — age,
generation, style — to the differences between the Old Testament
characters Moses and Joshua. Moses came to the threshold of the Promised
Land but had to pass the baton to Joshua because Moses died before he
could cross over.
“There’s a point (when) the Joshua generation has to stand on its
own two feet,” the younger Moss said, “but never disregard what the
generation before it did for them.”

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service

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