Praise and Politics

At D.C.'s historically black Second Baptist Church, believers are hopeful about the future after the victory of Barack Obama.
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008

Second Baptist Church has its traditions and sticks to them: elaborate hats, white-gloved ushers, communion wafers on a silver platter. Its genteel culture favors time-honored hymns over Afrocentric verse, singing "America the Beautiful" over talking politics.

Yesterday, the old hymns blurred at the 160-year-old D.C. church with the election of the country's first black president, turning a Barack Obama campaign slogan into a shouted prayer: "Yes, Jesus Can!"

The 95-year-old in the choir fist-pumped. "Obama" buttons were pinned to flawless ladies' suits. And the Rev. James Terrell boomed from the altar that God "made something happen that people said would never happen!"

The joy at Second Baptist, now a small congregation in a sea of condominiums near Union Station, felt nothing like a K Street Election Night fiesta. It was partly economic fears. But for Americans who see events through a spiritual prism, even Obama's election was primarily a time to honor God.

Terrell preached about God's ability to keep African Americans uplifted through bleak centuries. To inspire a boy of modest means with an absent father who became president. To give hope. These are the messages of the past week, he said.

"This is a great victory for so many, and thank you for reminding us it is only to [God] we can turn for comfort and relief," the teacher-turned-minister told 50 worshipers.

To stand beneath Second Baptist's soaring ceilings is to see the cost that change sometimes exacts. The church lost many members to the rising cost of D.C. housing, and condo construction has literally shaken the historic building to the point of cracking its walls, pushing away more members who find it "depressing" to see their beloved church in disrepair, Terrell said.

Obama's victory didn't appear to be the only thing on people's minds.

"I'm in the car business, so that's how I'm doing," Carrol Jackson, the chairman of the deacon board, said before services began. "But the Lord will provide."

Terrell spent almost as much time preaching about the economy as he did about the historic election, and that's saying something in a church that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The crescendo of his sermon came near the end, when he used Obama's well-known slogan to get people to focus on prayer.

"I don't know what job you're trying to get, but YES, JESUS CAN! I don't know what you're looking for, but YES, JESUS CAN!"

Helen Harris, who was celebrating her 95th birthday at a post-service luncheon, wasn't fixated on political milestones.

"Election? What do you mean?" she said into the microphone when Terrell asked her opinion. She then explained how she sees it. "I know God has done all of this for us, and it happened in a moment," the tiny woman said to the dozens crowded in the church basement. "So let's let God have it."

Phyllis Epps said she sees God's hand in Obama's election, and here's how. She sees it in a human being fulfilling his potential, when so many others do not. She sees it in the fulfilled dreams of slaves 400 years ago. In the concept of destiny.

"You don't get anywhere on your own," Epps, 48, a contract specialist for the federal government, said as the birthday party began. "Does God pick candidates? Depends on who you talk to. I think everybody does have some calling in life."

Also at the party was Grace Holloman Davis, 85, who grew up at Second Baptist, where her father was minister. Wearing a red, white and blue beaded "Obama" bracelet and two Obama pins on her blazer, Davis attended and taught math in segregated D.C. schools.

God's role can be pragmatic, she said.

"Black churches anchored us. They have been the post we leaned on. No other organization compares to the church; they gave us our heroes," she said. Even as she saw God's presence in the Illinois Democrat's election, if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had been chosen, there would have simply been a different spiritual lesson.

"God answers in His own way and in His own time," said Davis, a jovial woman who was constantly interrupted by people coming over to kiss her. "Sometimes the answer doesn't come in the way we expect it to."

That Second Baptist is even here is a bit of a miracle. The congregation began 14 years before the District's slaves were freed and had a black pastor before President Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. The church, in the Gothic Revival style, sits at Third Street NW. Few members live nearby anymore.

Outside was a glorious morning, with the last beautiful red and yellow leaves clinging to the trees. Inside, Second Baptist was holding fast to the best news many congregants have had in a while. But always in context. Ushers handed out newsletters, which included a long list of people who were sick or needed prayer for some reason.

Brother Harry Freeman, at the veterans' hospital. Sister Ruth Richards, at home. The Dixon family, grieving.

And on the very last line: President-elect Barack Obama.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company