19th St. Baptist's Glory: The Obamas

President-elect Barack Obama and his family attended services this morning at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest historically black churches in Washington. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Nikita Stewart and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 19, 2009

Barack Obama and his family attended services yesterday at one of the oldest historically black churches in Washington, thrilling a congregation that honored the president-elect for advancing the legacy of such civil-rights icons as Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, a Northwest Washington institution with a storied history dating back more than 200 years, was filled with hundreds of people who eagerly welcomed the Obamas for a service filled with spirit, song and Scripture. The visit was to be a surprise, but the presence of the Secret Service gave it away, as did the urgings last week of the pastor, who told the congregation to arrive early for a "special" day.

The Rev. Derrick Harkins focused his sermon on how God prepares people to do incredible things in challenging times. "Mr. President-elect . . . perhaps, perhaps, just perhaps you are where you are for such a time as this," he said.

The service was lined with other references to the man who will become the nation's first African American president tomorrow as well as to King, who is being commemorated today. One child recited a reading: "Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King Jr. could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that all children can fly."

Even before the Obamas arrived, members were clapping to the hymn "Down at the Cross" and responding enthusiastically to calls to "Let the church say 'Amen!' " The Obamas and the future first lady's mother, Marian Robinson, arrived five minutes before the 11 a.m. service, shaking hands with parishioners as they walked to their seats in the second row.

Obama tapped his feet and clapped his hands to the down-home gospel tune "God Is." And when the children's choir performed, 7-year-old Sasha rose from her seat for a better view.

The visit was part of a full day of activities in Washington, capped by an afternoon concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Earlier, Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Biden and his wife, Jill, later attended Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, where they got an enthusiastic reception.

In a statement, Obama's Presidential Inaugural Committee said the Obamas were "honored to worship" at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church "and look forward to learning more about many churches in the District." The statement said the Obamas have not decided where they will regularly worship, adding, "They will choose a church home at a time that is best for their family."

For Nineteenth Street Baptist, it was another momentous day in history. The institution's past reaches to 1802; it is so rich in tradition that when the church moved to 16th Street NW, near Buchanan Street, members kept "Nineteenth Street" in its name.

Yesterday, members in their Sunday finest began lining up outside more than three hours before the service.

"The fact that he chose here is a testament to the longevity of the church," said Barbara Fagin Manly, 72, who was baptized there 56 years ago. "It's been a real pillar of this city."

The church is about three miles north of the White House. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is among its prominent neighbors, and he sometimes worships there.

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