A Rush of Spiritual Outreach, Spirited Partying

By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Saying they see a spiritual nature to Barack Obama's inauguration, dozens of area churches and other faith groups are planning an unusual rush of activities to mark the occasion, from assisting food banks to Bible lectures on public policy to hosting of hundreds of out-of-town church members.

For the people involved, many of whom are mainline Protestants, the events are unprecedented; religion historians and local faith leaders say they can't remember anything similar for a presidential inauguration. Plans sound more like those for a mission trip than a political swearing-in.

The largest effort is being made by United Methodists, whose city churches are hosting such workshops as "Earth Care and Justice For All" and youth choirs from across the country and urging dozens of regional churches to focus on the theme of rebirth from the Book of Ezekiel next Sunday. A Sokka Gakkai Buddhist center in Northwest will be open all day, saying it sees the inauguration as a "teaching moment for Buddhists." The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington calls it a "special opportunity" for interfaith dialogue by placing visitors in homes of people of another faith.

Washington's Methodist churches are hosting people from across the country and holding blood drives, performances by out-of-town choirs and lectures on "The Politics of Jesus in the Gospel."

"We've heard so much about hope in this campaign, and I think the church has always been a place where hope has been given," said Donna Claycomb Sokol, pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church on Massachusetts Avenue NW. "For people of faith, we put it in a God who turns this world upside down and who is always changing things and always eager for things to be changed. That's so much the message of this new president."

Randall Balmer, a Columbia University historian of American religion, said he'd never heard of faith groups organizing like this for an inauguration and noted that he was invited to speak about religion and the presidency the night of the inauguration at a church in Manhattan. "I've never had that sort of invite," he said.

The previous inaugural agenda for many houses of worship had been simply to offer a prayer for the incoming president. But this year, church groups feel inspired to witness the swearing-in themselves.

"Everyone needs to know that they are loved and part of God's family, and I think that's connected to the political bipartisanship of Obama," said Mark Miller, 42, a choir director from New Jersey who is bringing a group of spiritual singers called Young Persons' Justice Corral -- a name they picked for the trip.

Most of the church groups represent liberal philosophies, and their members say they were inspired by what they perceived as Obama's nearly spiritual way of speaking.

When President Bush was elected in 2000 and 2004, many religious conservatives characterized his wins in spiritual terms as well, and pastors in some of those churches said they were not planning anything special for this year's inauguration.

Many faith groups are celebrating in more earthly ways. On Jan. 17, there is the Youth Inaugural Ball at Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw, which advertises "respectable hip-hop and R&B music"; the T-Shirt and Tails Ball to benefit the Bishop Walker Episcopal School in Southeast Washington; and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue's benefit concert "43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidents" for Bands for Lands, a conservation and social responsibility group. On Jan. 18 is the sold-out $250-a-ticket African-American Church Inaugural Ball and Ohev Sholom's National Inaugural Jewish Ball. Several Muslim groups are hosting a black-tie ball Jan. 19 for 500 -- a first.

Some groups view the inauguration as a spiritual outreach opportunity, but not necessarily one in line with Obama's views.

Project Rachel, a Catholic group that opposes abortions, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are planning to take advantage of the millions of people in town and run ads on Metro promoting post-abortion counseling. Catholic leaders criticize Obama for supporting abortion rights.

Lutheran churches are organizing special community service efforts. Episcopal churches are hosting inauguration-watching gatherings. And the Church of Christ, Scientist's two D.C. churches will open.

"We're not proselytizing. We're adding that meaningful pause," said Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a longtime member of the Church of Christ church on 16th and I, near the White House. "This new president needs help from the people."

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