By Krissah Thompson and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Ursula Holmes was settled into her usual pew toward the rear of Washington's Nineteenth Street Baptist Church when President-elect Barack Obama saw her. Both he and his wife, Michelle, paused, stooped down and took hold of her hand as they left church after a Sunday service in January.
Holmes was too excited then to whisper the advice she now has for them, advice that she says has helped her survive in this city for 92 years. "Find a church family," she wants to tell them. "There's no place like the black church."
Holmes is far from alone in that sentiment. Everyone in Washington's church-going community seems to have an opinion about where the first family should go to church -- and nowhere is hope higher than among the city's scores of predominantly black churches, which are in the mix for the first time. Their pastors and members are asking: Will Obama choose one of us? Like so many choices the first family is making in this city, the search for a church has spurred discussions about the state of race relations and a hot competition for its mark of approval.
Will the Obamas affiliate themselves with a black church, which could signal that they are still comfortable making their spiritual home one that is predominantly African American? Or will they choose a mostly white or racially integrated church, sending the message that they are interested in shifting the paradigm of religion and race?
"There is so much pressure put on this particular family to affiliate with a church that, in my own opinion, I think it's unfair," said the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, pastor of Metropolitan AME, a historic black church six blocks from the White House that has hosted other presidents and which Frederick Douglass often visited. "It seems to me that wherever they go at the end of the day, a whole lot of feelings will be hurt."
The intense interest in the city's churches over the president's choice of church is uniquely complex. One hundred days into the Obama presidency, the family continues to receive invitations, letters and phone calls from ministers of all racial backgrounds. The Obamas came to Washington without a home church because of the controversy surrounding their longtime pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, with whom they severed ties during the campaign. They have since said in interviews that they intend to be a part of the Washington community, and aides have hinted that regular church attendance could be a part of that. The Obamas are still researching local churches, including several majority-black ones, and are concentrating the search in the District. They are keeping open the option of not committing to any one church in particular.
In addition to the visit to Nineteenth Street, the first family has twice visited the church attended by many of their predecessors, St. John's Church, in the shadow of the White House. They've also attended services at the military chapel at Camp David and Washington National Cathedral.
The Obamas have a range of black churches from which to choose. Some have traditionally served dignitaries. Metropolitan AME hosted presidents Taft and Clinton. "We here at Metropolitan historically have been able to host congresspersons, ambassadors, college professors and presidents on many occasions," Braxton said, adding that he doesn't focus on their titles.
Other churches are familiar to the White House because prominent staff members have long ties in the city. Melody C. Barnes, White House domestic policy director, is an active member of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, a church that is theologically liberal and not opposed to same-sex marriage, an issue that has been a political hot button for the president. Another option could be a large, family-oriented church such as Metropolitan Baptist Church, which has locations in Washington and suburban Maryland, is well known to local politicians, has an active youth ministry and has posted on its Web site pictures of children from the church along with photos of the Obamas at the White House Easter Egg Roll.
Other churches are leaning on their storied histories to draw Obama. The men's ministry at First Baptist Church Georgetown sent a letter to the White House that highlighted the church's founding in 1862 by the Rev. Sandy Alexander, a former slave. The Rev. Jesse W. Plater, pastor of Alexander Memorial Baptist -- founded by blacks in 1908 -- said his church is sending a letter, too, in part because "it's personal being black and this being the first black first family."
This could be "an opportunity for the black church to have a voice from the inside instead of always being on the outside shouting through the window," said the Rev. Keith Byrd, who oversees Zion Baptist Church, which was founded 144 years ago in a feed store on F Street NW. "There is the possibility that for the first time the African American church clergy can have a real place at the table that, quite frankly, our white counterparts have enjoyed for a long time."
At a recent conference of African Methodist Episcopal leaders in the District, preachers prayed for the Obamas, making special note of the pressures they face as the first African Americans in their position, said the Rev. Tony Lee, who oversees Community of Hope AME Church in suburban Maryland. Gossip about which church Obama might choose was not a part of the sidebar discussion at the conference, but Lee said there is a feeling that the president's impact on the local black faith community could be huge.
"If the dog they chose got international media attention, then, my God, the church they choose is going to be a really big deal," he said, noting that there has never been a local black church or pastor who enjoyed that kind of spotlight.
The Obamas also have an opportunity to make a modern statement about race and religion, said the Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor of the 28,000-member Greater Allen AME Cathedral in New York. "One thing we learned in the campaign season is that there is no one race that could elect him, and his responsibility to the whole is greater than to any one group," Flake said. "The larger cultural paradigm has shifted significantly, and people see him as someone who can cross those [racial] borders."
The multicultural, interfaith ideal Obama tries so hard to promote represents an American ideal, and picking a more integrated church would take Americans "to a place we may not have the courage to go ourselves" in our own worship routines, said Alton Pollard, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity.
A potential land mine with black Christians, Pollard said, is if Obama gives the impression in his general behavior -- beyond a church pick -- that he is "no longer interested in the black church." He needs to make clear that this is the institution "that essentially gave birth to him."
Obama wrote in his autobiography that it was a black church that was instrumental in his conversion from skepticism to belief. Later, his relationship with the same church threatened to derail his political career when Wright's fiery sermons at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago became an issue during the presidential campaign.
The family's ultimate decision not to join another predominantly black church might be because they are worried about that kind of conflict, said Byrd, of Zion Baptist. "There is a tradition in black churches of speaking truth to power," he said. The pastor Obama chooses "has to be clean as a whistle and have past viewpoints consistent with the president's."
The worshipers at Nineteenth Street Baptist are undeterred. Theirs is a congregation with a traditional worship service, a gospel choir that favors hymns and a relatively liberal church structure that ordains women as ministers and deacons. It also has a ministry that serves the homeless and one that has done educational outreach on HIV and AIDS prevention in the black community.
And now the church has a new committee: one formed to handle future visits from the first family, although the White House has given no indication that the Obamas will return. It would not be the first time a president regularly visited their church. In the 1990s, George H.W. Bush stopped by a few times. This decade, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft did, too.
"But this is different," said Yvonne Dickson, who retired from a local bank and serves on the deacon board. "We are a family, and they will fit in."
Nineteenth Street's pastor, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, has been at the center of Washington church buzz since the Obamas came to service a dozen Sundays ago. In a town where proximity to power is the goal, hosting the Obamas is the ultimate get -- even for a house of worship. "People have been asking me how I got them to come," said Harkins, who did not send a letter of invitation to the White House and told his congregation that "we were not going to politic or strategize around this."
"Honestly, the phone rang, and I picked it up," he said. "This should be about invitation, not solicitation. We've got to really trust God's directing hand."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.