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.
"I don't remember that kind of excitement," said Mary Finch Hoyt, former press secretary for Rosalynn Carter. The Carters attended First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C., the faith home of several previous presidents. "After the initial questions about what being 'born again' means were answered satisfactorily, their religion and worship habits were more or less taken for granted," Hoyt said.
Some ministers say they have been told that the Obamas won't make a decision until January. The Obamas have not moved to a new church in Chicago since leaving Wright's church, and the transition team isn't saying whether they have chosen a church here -- or if they've begun the search.
But plenty of others are weighing in.
Denominational leaders are getting into the act, pointing out how their faith's beliefs line up with Obama's.
Bishop John School, who heads the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, sent Obama a list of local United Methodist churches.
"Our congregations would be glad to welcome you, your family, your staff and their families to be part of our communities of prayer and service," his letter said. "Your message of personal responsibility and social justice are important United Methodist themes."
The United Church of Christ, the denomination of Obama's former church, United Trinity Church of Christ, is in the running, too. UCC General Minister and President John Thomas dropped Obama a note three days after the election "offering the hospitality of our congregations in Washington as places of nurture, sanctuary and encouragement."
Churches that have hosted former presidents aren't far behind. First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C., at which five previous presidents have worshiped, has offered itself for a pre-inaugural service or as a church home for the Obamas, said Dennis Lambert, church administrator.
In his letter, Luis León, rector of St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, an Episcopal church just steps from the White House, pointed out that every president since James Madison has attended St. John's at least once during their administration.
"We, of course, would be delighted if he chose to attend here," Leon said.
Churches haven't hesitated to use their political connections. Among others, Foundry United Methodist, spiritual home of the Clintons, has used members with connections to the Obamas as conduits.
"We have attempted to communicate to both the incoming administration and also to those newly elected to Congress that we see part of our mission to be a spiritual home for people serving in our government," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Dean Snyder.
Many churches are stressing their community activism and social-justice outreach to a president whose professional background includes such involvement. New York Avenue Presbyterian is touting its involvement with Washington Interfaith Network and its community organizing, Westmoreland has pointed out its social outreach and Calvary is promoting its "faith that matters."
It isn't easy hosting a president. Aside from extensive security sweeps, church members are generally limited to entering through one door, often leading to lines, and must go through metal detectors and submit to those Secret Service pokes through handbags and other bags.
And given the attention to Wright's fiery sermons when they were posted on YouTube, some ministers have worried about the scrutiny over what they say ending up part of the national dialogue.
Nonetheless, said Lynch, "It's prestigious to have [the Obamas] attend -- it's such a historic presidency -- which outweighs the significant challenges and difficulties."