District Notebook: Church Search for Obamas Is Not So Simple

By Hamil R. Harris and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Although the first family worshiped at St. John's Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington on Easter Sunday, President Obama is still a man without a permanent church. As he tries to find one, African American pastors say, he is dealing with much more than just finding a place to go on Sunday mornings.

Obama's struggles with church began on the campaign trail, when he broke away from the Trinity United Church of Christ last spring after controversial sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., were published on the Internet. Critics questioned whether Obama shared Wright's beliefs, which some called racially divisive, after Obama initially refused to break with his longtime spiritual adviser.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who offered the benediction during Obama's inauguration, said Obama is giving the decision "some time. Everybody ought to have a church where they can enjoy the fellowship. We need to give him some leeway. This is a family decision."

Lowery, a veteran civil rights leader, delivered the Easter message at Howard University on Sunday. The former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was part of Obama's religious advisory board during the election, said he hasn't talked to the president since the inauguration. "I don't think we need to rush him," he said.

The Rev. Henry P. Davis, pastor of the 3,000-member First Baptist Church of Highland Park, was at the National Press Club last year when Wright turned a press breakfast into a media storm. Davis said the African Americans he talks to aren't really concerned about where Obama attends church.

"Many in the church community have so much to deal with themselves, they don't have time to worry about where the president is going to church," Davis said. "At the end of the day, having a spiritual foundation is what is most important. Prayers are always going to be needed for our president, because he has an enormous job."

The Sunday before his inauguration in January, Obama attended services at the 19th Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest historically black churches in the District.

One of the challenges the first family has in attending church is privacy. Although the White House told the Rev. Derrick Harkins not to tell anybody that the Obamas would be going to 19th Street Baptist, word leaked out, and the line to get into the church stretched around the building.

The Rev. Keith A. Battle, 43, pastor of Zion Church in Largo, said: "It would be nice if he could go to church with his wife and children and it not be published, and he can just worship. If people know that he is coming, it doesn't have to get on MySpace, Twitter, Facebook or the prayer line.

"At the end of the day, he may be the most prominent person in the world, but he is still a man who has a wife and children, and like all of us he needs spiritual direction," said Battle, who has one of the fastest-growing churches in the area, with several thousand members. "He hurts, he fears, he has questions. I think we all need a place where we can go and have anonymity to some degree."

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said: "It is challenging for any family to pick a church. You are looking for a strong youth program, preaching, a social support network. . . . On top of that, [there is] the unbelievable media scrutiny and the huge burden that will be placed on any congregation they join and clergy leadership. What preacher wants every sermon that they have ever delivered to become public record?"

Gay Marriage Campaign

The Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the D.C. Democratic State Committee will begin a campaign to push for the legalization of gay marriage, a bill expected to be proposed this year by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) got the ball rolling last week with a surprise amendment that recognizes gay nuptials from other jurisdictions. The legislation received unanimous support from the council on the day Vermont lawmakers overturned the governor's veto there to legalize same-sex marriage.

On Monday, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a founding chapter of the National Stonewall Democrats, is scheduled to vote on a resolution in support of gay marriage, said David Meadows, a member of the caucus.

Members of the caucus will begin visiting Democratic committees of each ward to have discussions about the issue and to convince party activists to pass resolutions of support, Meadows said. "We feel it's best to let the community speak on it," Meadows said.

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