President Obama and his family are worshipping at the 147-year-old Zion Baptist Church in Northwest D.C. on Sunday morning, keeping up a tradition of going to church the day before the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.
While the Obamas have gone to church a few times a year since they moved into the White House, the King holiday has been an occasion for them to participate in the African American church tradition, complete with spirited choirs and gospel preaching.
Zion quickly filled up with members and visitors Sunday morning, and when asked about the Presidential visit, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Keith W. Byrd, said: “It’s a wonderful day. We came to worship and the first family did too.”
Prior to the start of the service Byrd told his flock: “They are coming to worship. Let the church say Amen!”
Stephanie Nash and her three children got to Zion at 8:15 a.m. The Nash family walked a few blocks in a stiff cold wind.
“This is where are every Sunday,” said Nash, who works as a counselor for children with special needs. “It’s good to know that we have a praying President.”
Jamal Nash, 16, also said that he was glad that the Obama family came to their church. “This brings everyone together for this important weekend to remember Dr. King.”
The church’s mission, according to its Web site, is to “Enlist sinners, Educate Students, Empower the Suffering, Encourage the Saints and Empower Our Savior.”
The president and his family walked from the White House on Dec. 12 to worship at St John’s Episcopal Church, and last year they went to Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church just before the King holiday.
“I believe that the president is a man of great faith,” said the Rev. Ronald Braxton, pastor of Metropolitan AME. “He has taken the opportunity over the last four years to visit various churches and denominations. I firmly believe that he wouldn’t have been able to survive what he has been through had it not been for his faith.”
Despite church visits, faith events and monthly conference calls by White House aides, the president’s faith and why the first family has never joined a local congregation remain a subject of interest for many pastors.
In 2010, Obama visited Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in the District, where he used a pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood in to deliver a five-page address. Since that time, he has chosen to sit quietly in the pews without speaking publicly.
The Obamas were members of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago before he ran for president. The pastor who married the couple, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has spoken on the campus of Howard University for many years on the Sunday before the King holiday.
The first church visit of Obama’s presidency was at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church on the eve of his inaugural. According to the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the church’s pastor, Obama’s faith goes much further than how many times he has been found in the pews since he became president.
“This president has talked profoundly about being a committed Christian many times over,” Harkins said. “He is a man of prayer and he has spoken opening about his faith and acts upon it in the way he chooses to serve.”