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Sundays in America: Barack Obama's church

SheasundaysinamericaThe woman in the post office doesn't like Hillary, but tells me she's not about to vote for Barack.

"He's Muslim," she leans in to whisper.

I lean in closer and reply "He's not."

Barack Obama is a Christian. But he's also one from a varied cultural and religious family, the specifics of which are spawning all sorts of misinformation as the Illinois senator campaigns for nomination as the Democratic party’s presidential candidate.

The facts: Obama had a black African father who hailed from a Christian/Muslim family; a white Kansan mother who balked at organized religion but stocked the home bookshelves with the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as collections of mythology from the world over; a lukewarm Indonesian Muslim stepfather; and non-practicing Baptist and Methodist grandparents. By age ten, Obama had attended both a Catholic and a Muslim public school in Indonesia, then, upon moving to his grandparents' home in his birthplace of Hawaii, was enrolled in a Christian prep school. The salad bar of experiences served up appreciation of other faiths but didn't inspire the self described "reluctant skeptic" to quickly pick a favorite, even when affiliation might have benefited his early political career.

Sheatrinityucc Seventeen years ago, Obama made his choice: the United Church of Christ, created in this country in 1957 via the union of the Evangelical and Reformed Churches with most of the Congregational Christian Churches. The UCC is known for the independence of its 5,633 congregations, spiritual home to 1.2 million. It's also known for the non-traditional ways it can present the Protestant experience, including through its recent TV ads that show congregants being plucked from the pews of an anonymous church due to factors including race and gender, the message being that at UCC, all are welcome.

Even so, this denomination remains extremely white. An exception is Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama and his wife Michele and two young daughters worship. Located in his South Side Chicago neighborhood, Obama's church  describes itself as "a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian." With 8,500 members, Trinity is the country’s largest UCC congregation, a population pulled together in large part by the presence of the dynamic and sometimes controversial Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.  The senior pastor of Trinity since March of 1972, Pastor Wright has overseen growth that has included more than 70 ministries including a fine arts and literary guild, financial counseling, men's mentoring, legal advisement, childcare, addiction programs and college placement.

All that growth led to the  1997 opening of the 2,700-seat worship center, where on a Sunday during election season of 2005, in my year of visiting churches, I attended a service largely because of curiosity about the man who's now Trinity's most famous member. It's an enormous place, was packed to standing room only, and I spotted Barack Obama nowhere but in the bulletin, which held notice of his upcoming book signing. But I was so glad to have visited—for the warm welcome, the heart-blossoming men's choir, the memorable sermon about being in the here and now. As we are in this primary season, where the presence and power of one of Trinity UCC's own has become a fact that can't be denied.

If faith is to be such an important factor to American voters, the accuracy of their knowledge about a candidate should be just as important. And in getting the facts straight they might just learn a few things – as did I during my trip to one candidate's spritual home.

Suzanne Strempek Shea,winner of the 2000 New England Book Award for Fiction, is the author of five novels, Selling the Lite of Heaven , Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, Around Again , and Becoming Finola, and the memoirs Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, and Shelf Life. Her next book, Sundays in America, from which she adapted this post, will be released by Beacon Press this coming Easter. She lives in Bondsville, Massachusetts, and sells books at Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts. This post is the second in a series: read the first here.