MILFORD — For a change, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was the quiet one.
An estimated crowd of 800 gathered at Kingdom Life Christian Church in Milford on Thursday for a “conversation” between Wright — president-elect Barack Obama’s outspoken former pastor — and the Rev. John Rankin, a Harvard-educated evangelical from West Hartford. Though some in attendance said they expected Wright’s comments to be controversial, the reverend voiced optimism that bigotry is fading in America, an optimism that stood in stark contrast to the more fiery comments of his evangelical counterpart.
Wright, notorious for hostile comments made during sermons at his Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ, was decidedly conciliatory during the debate. In a discussion titled “The Bible, Race and American History,” Wright said youths are the “glimmers of hope” for solving racism in the status quo, citing the massive turnout of young people in the Iowa caucus as an example.
“No one is talking to these kids, but they have a vision,” Wright said. “In our children’s lifetimes, there won’t be the same drawing of lines in the sand like we had.”
Despite this optimism, Wright said he believes individual successes — like Oprah and Obama — should not hinder progress in changing social barriers.
His counterpart, Rankin, said the solution to racism will be achieved with the second coming of Jesus. Rankin said poverty, racism and the “hell in the inner city” are rooted in one problem.
“The greatest evils in our society is caused by the chosen absence of the biological father,” Rankin said.
Wright spent relatively little time discussing his connection with Obama. Only when he was asked about the scandal earlier this year, in which sections of his sermon were portrayed as racist and anti-American by certain media outlets, did he speak at all.
“The media wanted to use me as a weapon of mass destruction to destroy that man,” Wright said, referring to Obama, in response to questions about the controversy earlier this year. “I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of being a Christian. That is what the world does not know about me.”
While the crowd that Wright and Rankin were addressing was mainly Christian, it was demographically diverse, both in age and ethnicity.
Alysha Compton, a high school student at Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, Conn., said she had been given free tickets by her school and encouraged to attend. After expecting Wright to be much more radical and outspoken, Compton said she was surprised at the levelheaded nature of the conversation.
“They gave compromising answers,” Compton said. “They were trying to understand where the other is coming from and coming to a conclusion together.”
After listening to Wright, Frank Massey of Amherst, Mass., said he felt the media had taken Wright’s comments out of context. Massey said he and his wife, Suk, have been traveling up and down the coast to attend Rankin’s forums, such as one on gay marriage, because his teachings resonate well with their beliefs.
“He was human, and we all have strong feelings,” he said, “but I don’t think he wanted to be perceived as a racist.”
Yet not all were so pleased with Wright’s visit. Departing audience members were confronted outside the church by a group of 15 demonstrators dressed in fatigues who waved a giant American flag in front of the news trucks, shouting “Rev. Wright is a racist” and calling the attendees “traitors.”
But people had little trouble passing by them.