Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of John Schol, who heads the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Churches Vie to Attract The Newest First Family

By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 22, 2008

There have been letters, discreet inquiries and bold appeals. Some are using their connections; others are just seeking a foot in the door.

It's part of the spirited competition among Washington churches to land the most sought-after Christians in town: the Obama family.

Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal -- all have been courting the Obamas to be regulars in their pews on Sunday mornings.

When Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in Northwest Washington decided to woo the Obamas, a friend in the local faith community had some advice: "He just laughed and told me that I should get in line."

She made a pitch to the Obamas that includes the following: We're diverse and multigenerational, we're 10 blocks from the White House, the pastor (Butler) is from Hawaii and attended Obama's rival high school, and "the sermons rock!"

Calvary's outreach is being replayed all over town as churches try to maneuver themselves to attract the nation's first African American president and his family to their house of worship.

They are waging a "quiet but intense campaign . . . to put their best foot forward," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

Some churches started their campaign even before Obama won the election. Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ sent a letter to the Obama campaign several months ago inviting the family to worship with them.

"We thought we'd better get something out there," said the Rev. Rich Smith, senior minister of Westmoreland. "It seemed like it would be worth a shot anyway."

The excitement astonishes presidential historians.

"I can't recall another situation where there is this kind of interest before the president even takes office in terms of where he is going to go to church, and churches campaigning for his attendance," said Gary Scott Smith, author of "Faith and the Presidency" and a history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. "This is unique in American political history."

The historic nature of the new First Family -- as the first African Americans and the first in decades with small children -- plus Obama's high-profile difficulties with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is placing unprecedented attention on the family's choice of a church. Normally, say historians and members of previous administrations, the selection rarely raises a ruckus.

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