St. John Episcopal’s guest preacher gets Obama surprise

The Rev. Thomas Reid Ward Jr. never forgot growing up in Meridian, Miss., how his father was not deterred from pushing for civil rights for African Americans even though their family received a threatening letter from the Ku Klux Klan.


President Obama, his wife Michelle and their daughter Sasha bid farewell to Rev. Luis Leon (top, R) before walking back to the White House after attending a Sunday morning service at St. John's Church in Washington. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Five minutes before he began, President Obama walked into the sanctuary with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Sasha. Ward handled the moment with aplomb, despite his excitement.

“John Newton started off as a slave trader, and he ended up being a force to abolish the slave trade. The message is go and do likewise,” Ward said after the service. “Part of what got me in this vocation is seeing Episcopal priests doing the right thing in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.”

Ward, who is now retired, said it was the courage of his father and a Mississippi Episcopal bishop, Duncan Gray, that motivated him to go into the ministry. “It was about working for social justice,” he said. “We still got a long way to go, but God is at work, and we are not alone in this struggle.”

President Obama has visited St. John’s more than any other congregation since he moved into the White House and had most recently worshiped there in December.

Even though the Obamas have not joined a church in Washington, they have regularly visited a District congregation several times a year, particularly on Easter Sunday and the Sunday before the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In January, the first family attended Zion Baptist Church in Northwest.

When the Obamas visit Zion Baptist and other African American congregations, it’s not uncommon for hundreds of worshipers to wait in line at sunrise to attend the services. But the family’s attendance at St. John’s has become almost routine for the Rev. Luis Leon and the congregation, who are used to having presidents in the pews.

“We don’t change things when the president comes,” Leon said as he shook hands and held babies in front of the church after the Obamas walked back to the White House. “We are always delighted to have him here. He comes with frequency to visit our congregation.”

“The president makes it a point to visit a number of congregations, and I am glad that we are one of the congregations,” said Leon, who said he is also proud that his congregation is racially diverse. “We have a wonderful mix reflecting God’s creation.”

Carl Raetner, assistant head usher at St. John’s, said that while he is delighted whenever Obama visits the church, the church makes no special accommodations for the first family. “The more a president comes to church, the better it is for everyone,” he said.

“We try very hard not make a fuss over him, not to stare, to treat him like just another parishioner,” said Herman Helgert, whose wife, Janet, was a little more excited about the visit. “It is a powerful experience for him to come and join us because it makes him one of us temporarily.”

Asked what he and the president chatted about before the Obamas walked back to the White House, Leon said, “We talked about basketball brackets.”

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Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.

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