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Barack Obama: Putting faith out front

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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.

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