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.