By Matt Zapotosky and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 13, 2009
They came as any other family would on Easter Sunday: Dad in a dark suit and tie, Mom and oldest daughter in matching white cardigans. They sat smack dab in the middle of the congregation, the parents staring intently at their programs as they sang along to hymns, the youngest daughter yawning and burying her head in her hands.
As much as they could, anyway, America's first family tried to blend in at the 11 a.m. Easter service at the historic St. John's Episcopal Church and take another step toward full-fledged membership in the city they are calling home for at least the next four years. But for the Obamas, even something as simple as going to church can be a political and logistical headache.
By just after 10 a.m. yesterday, D.C. police officers and Secret Service agents had blocked off access to the church in the shadow of the White House and set up metal detectors in front of its doors. As parishioners and eager tourists waited in line to have their bags searched, dozens of onlookers gathered across the street, realizing that President Obama and his family might appear.
Speculation had swirled all week about where the president and his family would celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and questions remain about which D.C. church he will eventually call his own. Joshua DuBois, the White House's top faith adviser, released a statement yesterday saying the first family was "honored to worship" at St. John's but "has not made a decision yet on which church they will formally join in Washington."
By all accounts, their decision to spend yesterday at St. John's was a safe bet.
Each president since James Madison has worshiped there at least once, earning St. John's the nickname "Church of the Presidents." The church's kneelers are embroidered with the names of different commanders in chief, and parishioners are proud that they keep their cool in the presence of America's elected leaders. Obama himself attended a private service there on Inauguration Day, a tradition for presidents-elect.
"That's the way it is in this church," said Mariellen Curtis, 60, was has been going to St. John's for about a year and a half. "We're used to the presidents being here, but we do think of it as an honor."
Some, though, could not help themselves. As Obama and his family made their way to the reserved presidential seats in pew 54 yesterday, nearly everyone started clapping and whooping. During the service, a younger parishioner leaned over her seat and snapped photos on a cellphone camera. Shaking hands during the sign of peace drew a handful of people out of their pews and over to the Obamas.
"It's a very warm congregation," said Sally Carmalt, 91, a 35-year member of the church who came back from her new home near Philadelphia this weekend to check out St. John's recent renovations. "Always has been."
The president's name came up only once in the service, during a standard church prayer for "Barack, our president, the leaders of Congress, and the Supreme Court, and all who are in authority." The church rector, the Rev. Luis León, did almost nothing to tailor his sermon's message to his high-profile guest.
León spoke instead of how it is okay for people to doubt God's existence, as long as their doubts are founded on the "need for truth" rather than a "pathological desire to doubt." He told parishioners that the story of Jesus's resurrection is meant to be experienced in their lives and that Easter's essential message is one of hope.
"Whether the message of hope lives or dies is up to all of us," he said.
After the service, León said he found out Saturday night that the president would be joining his congregation for Easter. White House officials did not say where Obama would be attending church, citing security reasons and a desire to prevent a crush of newcomers and media from crowding out regular parishioners. The last time Obama attended a public church service in the District, on the Sunday before his inauguration, parishioners at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church learned of his visit a week ahead of time, when the pastor alerted them that there would be a "special guest."
Since the primary campaign, Obama's spiritual journey has drawn significant public interest. Obama, a Christian, has had to repeatedly deny rumors that he is Muslim, and his split last year with Trinity United Church of Christ and its controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, seemed at times to threaten his candidacy.
Presidential aides have been visiting area churches for weeks, both for Easter and to help the Obamas decide on a regular worship routine while they are in Washington. Clergy and other church-watchers have debated whether the family would pick a primarily African American church or whether they would pick a permanent church at all. All four family members took communion at the Episcopal church yesterday.
The White House made no official comment on why the president picked St. John's for Easter. The Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, speculated that "it allowed for them to worship with a minimal impact on other parishioners in a church that is used to presidential visits, historically."
"No matter what church they ultimately choose," he said, "sharing in the joy and triumph of Easter is something that all Christians look forward to doing."
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.