Nearly a year later, Obamas still looking for a church home

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 13, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after a painful break from his Chicago church, President Barack Obama and his family are considering joining several churches of various denominations in the nation's capital but have yet to settle on one, and aides said that they're unlikely to decide before Easter.

The delay reflects how the economic crisis has crowded out some personal considerations since Obama's inauguration in January, but it also underscores the complexities of this personal decision by a public man.

Past presidents have grappled with how and where to worship, but Obama's pick is especially guaranteed to provoke interest and scrutiny.

His former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial sermons on institutional racism and American foreign policy imperiled Obama's presidential campaign last year and finally forced Obama's break with Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Even as the church controversy roiled, a small percentage of Americans continued to believe falsely that Obama was Muslim because of his late, estranged Kenyan father and his childhood in Indonesia.

As America's first black president, Obama faces another unique conundrum: whether to join a historically black church.

Then there are standard logistical concerns: What churches could accommodate frequent presidential visits without seriously disrupting the existing congregation's ability to attend services? Which can the Secret Service best secure? Which routes work well for a motorcade?

Of those churches that best fit the Obamas culturally — ideologically and in terms of community service — which have the best youth programs for children Sasha and Malia?

"The Obamas are committed Christians, and they are certainly looking forward to a place to worship in their time in Washington," said Joshua DuBois, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and one of a handful of aides assisting the family's search. "What has become clear is that it's no easy task."

DuBois declined to say which churches or exactly how many the Obamas are seriously considering. He said that multiple denominations are being considered, as are historically black and mixed-race congregations.

The Obamas and a tight group of friends and advisers are vetting churches, but White House aides declined to discuss what the vetting process involves.

The consensus among several area pastors, religion professors and community organizers who were interviewed is that about a dozen churches in Northwest Washington are probably contenders.

Among the churches mentioned most often:

  • Two prominent black congregations with long histories, Metropolitan AME and the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Black power brokers including Vernon Jordan belong to Metropolitan; past members included Frederick Douglass, and the church is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Nineteenth Street Baptist (now on 16th Street) has a long civil rights history as well and is housed in what used to be a synagogue.
  • People's Congregational United Church of Christ. It's a predominately black congregation of the same denomination as Obama's former church. It has a new pastor who's from Michigan. Its members include Obama's domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, who's also among the aides who are informing the family's choice.
  • Calvary Baptist, a smaller church led by a pastor who grew up in Obama's birthplace, Hawaii. The Rev. Amy Butler said her former youth pastor played basketball on the Punahou School basketball team when Obama played basketball there. Butler writes a church blog and is building a young, mixed ethnic and racial congregation.

Past presidents have taken many different paths to worship.

Richard Nixon had the Rev. Billy Graham minister to him at the White House. Jimmy Carter not only attended First Baptist Church, but also taught some Sunday school classes there.

George W. Bush sometimes went to St. John's Episcopal Church, just across Lafayette Square from the White House, and sometimes prayed at a chapel at Camp David. Bill Clinton sought comfort at liberal Foundry United Methodist Church.

Without a church all these months, DuBois said, Obama "spends daily time in reflection and prayers. He does that privately."

So far, the Obamas' few church visits since moving to Washington in January have been connected to political events.

A visit to the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church — the only services attended by the full Obama family, including the girls and Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson — came during pre-inaugural events and a Martin Luther King holiday celebration.

Obama's visits to St. John's on Inauguration Day and later to the Washington National Cathedral for a prayer service are presidential tradition. Michelle Obama recently visited a homeless food program that's connected to Western Presbyterian.

Dean Snyder is now senior minister of Foundry, the church that Clinton attended when he was president. Whichever church the Obamas choose, Snyder said, the congregation will likely feel it's an honor — and a burden, with the increased security and public attention.

Snyder recently baptized a baby he said had been born to a couple who'd met at an Easter service during the Clinton years while they were standing in line to pass through the metal detectors.

In retrospect, he said, the Clintons' membership proved to be "a very positive net outcome."

Some churches that could be under consideration have interesting trivia.

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is where Obama's hero, Abraham Lincoln, often went. The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany was attended before the Civil War by Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy, and later by Lincoln's war secretary, Edwin M. Stanton.

St. John's, Shiloh Baptist, Metropolitan Baptist, National City Christian Church — where Lyndon Johnson frequently worshipped and where his state funeral was held — Western Presbyterian and Foundry also could be possibilities, pastors said.

Several pastors of these churches said they'd had no contact with the White House, and even those who did said they didn't know where they stood in the selection process.

"I would imagine in the course of time they might settle on a church, but I do think given the weight of responsibility on his part and trying to get acclimated and adjusted to this area, I think joining a church is just another one of those things on the agenda," said Metropolitan AME's senior pastor, the Rev. Ronald Braxton.

"It's a personal decision, and it's a prayerful decision," said the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins of Nineteenth Street Baptist. "They need to listen to God in terms of how that unfolds for them."

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