Women dressed in heels and fine fur coats started lining up in the cold outside Zion Baptist Church shortly after sunrise Sunday in hopes of worshiping with President Obama and his family. It is a scene that has been repeated each year on the eve of the federal holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. since the Obamas moved into the White House.
The Rev. Keith W. Byrd Sr. greeted nearly 700 people at his Northwest church, which sees fewer than half that number on a typical Sunday.
“They are coming to worship. Let the church say ‘Amen!’ ” Byrd told the congregation moments before the Obamas arrived. “How many people believe that the first family deserves the right to worship? . . . Let the church say ‘Amen!’ ”
Although many just wanted to spend a morning with the first family, others had hopes the Obamas would choose their church exclusively. The Obamas have not joined a Washington congregation.
Since becoming president, Obama has made one-time visits to Nineteenth Street Baptist, Vermont Avenue Baptist, Allen African Methodist Episcopa, Metropolitan AME and Shiloh Baptist. He has attended St. John’s Episcopal Church several times — most recently in December — but the Obamas have been only occasional churchgoers.
Each time the president has stepped into an African American church in the District since his inauguration — six times, to be exact — his visit has been preceded by stern warnings from pastors to their flocks to be courteous and respectful in the hopes of wooing the first family. But pastors and members of the churches he has attended have resigned themselves to the fact that Obama might visit but most likely won’t join.
Last year, the Rev. Marie Braxton, wife of the Rev. Ronald Braxton, made a friendly appeal from the pulpit to Michelle Obama to join Metropolitan AME. Marie Braxton even led the church in singing “Happy Birthday” to her and gave her a gift. In the end, the first family worshipped quietly and headed back to the White House a few blocks away.
“When Jimmy Carter was president, it is my understanding that he taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., but times have so drastically changed,” Ronald Braxton said. “Security, especially for this president, has to be so tight. It takes a lot of planning and preparation.
“I believe that he is a man of great faith. He has taken the opportunity over the last four years to visit various churches and denominations,” Braxton said. “I firmly believe that he has been able to survive what he has been through because of his faith.”
Four years ago, speculation abounded in pulpits across the city as to which church the Obamas would attend. Several pastors sent formal invitations, and White House officials fielded calls from people who hoped the president would join their church.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church and director of faith outreach for the Democratic National Committee, said Obama is a strong man of faith.
“The president has spoken and acted on his personal faith in a profound way many times,” Harkins said. “He has talked profoundly about being a committed Christian many times over. He is a man of prayer. He has spoken a lot about his faith, more than many of his predecessors.”
That Obama hasn’t joined a church in the District is not a big deal to Stephanie Nash, a counselor and a member of Zion who came to church with her three children Sunday. “It’s good to know that we have a praying president,” she said.
Jamal Nash, 16, said he was glad Obama came to his church because it keeps the focus on the legacy of King. “This brings everyone together for this important weekend to remember Dr. King,” Nash said.
Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said the White House staff selected Zion, a church that dates to the 1860s, because it is “a pillar” in the District. On Sept 25, 1977, President Jimmy Carter visited the church to introduce the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who preached that Sunday.
When the first family arrived Sunday, people rose to their feet, ushers snapped into place and the choir launched into a storm of music that was unabated until Byrd got up to preach. Byrd mixed Shakespeare with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
“I am so glad that Dr. King answered the question, ‘To be, or not to be?’ ” Byrd said. “Be a source of hope. You can live without a lot of things, but no human can exist without hope.”
True to his tradition, Obama didn’t speak during the service. Dubois said that “the president deeply enjoyed worshiping with the Zion Baptist Church family.”
After the first family left, Byrd began to cry as he reflected on the visit.
“We are just so grateful that the president came,” Byrd said. “It was an historical moment, particularly as we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has been some 30 years since a president has come to Zion, and from the looks on their faces, they enjoyed the worship and the people enjoyed having them here.”
For Alfonso Campbell, 64, a deacon at the church, the presidential visit was the punctuation mark on a lifetime of honoring King. A 1968 graduate of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, Campbell said he served as an honor guard when the civil rights leader’s body lay in state at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Campbell said that while he is grateful that the president visited Zion, he is more appreciative of how God has treated African Americans.
“Indeed, we have come a long way as a people,” said Campbell, a native of Montgomery, Ala., whose father, Alfonso Campbell Sr., was a colleague of King and served as transportation coordinator for the Montgomery bus boycott.