For more than 25 years, the second Sunday in January has been known as “Jeremiah Wright Sunday” at the historic Andrew Rankin Chapel on the Howard University campus. That is his spot on the scheduled kickoff of the annual birthday observance for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The teaching of our speaker has not changed. Each speaking moment is special,” Bernard L. Richardson, dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel and associate professor for Pastoral Care and Counseling, said about the man of the hour, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.
This preaching moment was even more special because 16 months ago, Wright suffered a major stroke, paralyzing the left side of this body and causing a cardiac challenge. Because of his medical condition, he was not able to make his annual trek to Rankin Chapel in 2017.
But on Sunday, Jan. 14, the room was packed with eager congregants at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University, where the annual service was held this year because of infrastructure damage sustained on the Howard University campus during the region’s recent frigid weather.
How would Wright look? What would he sound like?
Wright was rolled onto the stage with the other participating clergy. From his wheelchair, in a raspy but clear voice, he said, “The devil thought he had me, but God kept me in my right mind.”
Wright has always been revered as one who can translate lessons in the Bible to the current environment by his contemporaries and by those preachers coming behind him. He did just that in his King Week sermon, connecting his theme of “Take a Knee” to a passage from I Samuel 7:6-12.
He told parishioners that Bible scholars saw two glaring points in the selected scripture, First, the people of God were shown to worship the gods of their oppressors. Second, the scripture has a feeling of “terror text” which Wright citing the contemporary embracing of the flag in America.
“We worship money, bling bling, guns, killing, sex, and some Black folks even worship Number 45,” said Wright breaking down the scripture’s message. “You cannot worship the gods of oppressors while expecting God to deliver you from the oppressor. We hold on to what we worship while asking God to preserve us and to protect us.”
For Wright, he saw opposing beliefs do not work.
As the sermon continued, he recalled his time as a Howard University Divinity School student in 1968. He subtly share a message that was clearly preparing worshipers for the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4. He talked about what happened in the District following the news of King’s death.
With a bit of humor, Wright spoke of people looting stores and grabbing clothes that did not fit, passing bottles of whiskey from out of a liquor store and engaging in “free shopping” at a Safeway store that employees had abandoned.
“I saw the despair, the hopelessness, the futility, and the fun people where having in the wake of King’s murder,” Wright said to congregants. “It was terrifying and incredible to my generation, just as [Sept. 11] was to your generation.”
Throughout the sermon, Wright shared what he has learned in life and most recently from experiencing a stroke. He offered a perspective on settling down to reflect.
“Reflecting takes time, reflecting takes honesty, reflecting brings pain, and reflecting brings me much laughter,” he said.
Then Wright circled back to the sermon’s theme, “Take a Knee.” Because he was not able, he asked parishioners to take a knee in honor of those who have been unjustly killed and for those who made sacrifices for justice in America. Those at the service who were able knelt at Wright’s request.
“At the end of the sermon when we were all asked to take a knee, I was reminded of the photos that I’ve seen of Rev. King and fellow protestors knelt in prayer before a protest or act of civil disobedience,” said attendee and D.C. resident Ayanna Hawkins. “It felt very much like we were kneeling in preparation for the work ahead.”
Wright made sure that worshipers at the Rankin Chapel service knew that in spite of a stroke, he was still committed to speaking his truth to combat injustice.