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.
Nineteenth Street Baptist Church has often been a campaign stop, particularly for local politicians. The Obamas' visit yesterday came after four weeks of secret planning, according to people involved in the discussions.
The church originated at 19th and I streets NW, where slaves and whites worshiped together at Baptist Church of Christ. Later, white church members moved out, selling the property to a group of black Baptist ministers and others in 1839, and they organized the "First Colored Church of Washington." The name was changed to Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in 1870. For decades, it was the home church for many of the black White House servants and staffers. Later, it played a role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington and other civil-rights events. The church moved into its present home, a stately former synagogue, in 1975.
Through the years, the church has been progressive in its teachings and actions. In the early 1980s, the Rev. Jerry A. Moore Jr., the pastor at the time, joined other local Baptist ministers in defying an unspoken ban within black Baptist clergy to ordain a woman. Under Harkins, who became pastor 11 years ago, the church has been outspoken on issues involving HIV/AIDS, with bold talk of condoms and other prevention methods.
Nineteenth Street Baptist has a bipartisan tenor despite its mostly black and Democratic congregation of 1,200 members. In recent years, Harkins has publicly endorsed President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative. Former attorney general John D. Ashcroft, who served during Bush's first term, is among Republicans who have attended services there.
Harkins, 49, said he first met Obama during a faith-based forum at George Washington University. He later attended the Democratic National Convention in August in Denver, "an incredible moment in history."
After learning that the Obamas were coming yesterday, Harkins said, he agonized about his sermon, which he titled "For Such a Time as This." Whatever nervousness he felt, he said, was dispelled once he met the Obamas just before the service. And, indeed, Harkins exuded a confidence, almost as if counseling Obama. From time to time, he would get fiery and loud and then speak in a hushed tone.
Obama appeared pensive, sitting with his hands folded at his chin. At least twice, he took a pen out of his pocket and jotted down a note.
In his sermon, the pastor talked of the biblical heroes Mordecai and Esther, who met the challenge and saved themselves and their fellow Jewish people. He cited another event that has dominated headlines in recent days: the heroic actions of the pilot of a faltering US Airways jet that safely landed in the Hudson River. The pilot had years of training before that moment when he had to save the plane. You never know, Harkins said, when the experiences you accumulate in daily life will be put to a test.
And so it is with Obama. "You are aware that you are here for such a time as this," Harkins said. He urged the president-elect to remember two things when times grow difficult. "First, look to your wife as an encourager," he said. And second, "God is in the transformation business."