Obamas celebrate Easter in SE Washington church

The first family celebrates Easter service at the Southeast D.C. church.
By Eli Saslow and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 5, 2010

President Obama made it his goal Sunday to quietly attend an Easter service with his family, planning a secret trip in which he made no public remarks. But presidents don't blend in, especially in neighborhoods plagued by crime and unemployment. A crowd began to form outside Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington just before 3:30 a.m.

First came the men wearing suits and the women in high heels, followed a few hours later by 30 police officers who barricaded nearby roads. Then came the Secret Service, the news helicopters, the city politicians and the bomb-sniffing dogs. By 11:04 a.m., when Obama arrived for his most substantial trip yet to Southeast, hundreds of onlookers lined the streets.

As Obama worshipped with 700 others for two hours, the parishioners and preachers made him a focal point of the service. His mere presence was historic, they said. In Ward 8, the District's poorest, Obama's arrival was at once regarded as a reminder of the neighborhood's problems -- the unemployment rate is 28.5 percent -- and a reason to maintain hope.

"This is a monumental moment for us as a community," said the Rev. Dr. Michael E. Bell Sr., the church pastor, soon after Obama sat down. "Ward 8 has not been forgotten, not when the president would come here at a time like this."

Until Sunday, Obama's trips to Southeast Washington consisted of a visit to a charter school and a stop at a burger joint near Nationals Park. He had attended services in Washington five times since his election, usually to accept a blessing or make a speech.

The visit "galvanizes the black people in Ward 8," said Garry Brown said before the service.

Maybe, said Joseph Cobb, "it will bring some other politicians down here."

"Most of the time, we're forgotten about," said Earl Day.

When he left home Sunday in a 22-car motorcade, Obama's four-mile trip took him past the throngs of cherry blossom tourists and across the Anacostia River. He passed a housing project, boarded-up buildings and a mural decorated with his portrait. The limousine turned onto Alabama Avenue and into Ward 8, where four people were killed in a shooting last week and 40 percent of the residents live in poverty -- the part of the city, Obama once said, that "everybody forgets."

Even before the president arrived, regular churchgoers remarked that Allen Chapel seemed temporarily transformed by his visit. Two metal detectors guarded the entrance to the church, and a tent had been erected behind the building to facilitate a private arrival for Obama's limousine. Parishioners entered the service an hour early. Then a fire marshal blocked the entrance, leaving several hundred people lingering outside.

The congregation had started to sing alleluia by the time the first family entered, walking past the choir to a reserved pew in the front of the church. D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Ward 8 council member Marion Barry (D) also attended but did not interact with the Obamas.

The president clapped and stomped his foot to the beat. Michelle Obama, wearing a scooped-back beige dress, danced next to him. When the song finished, a woman from the choir grabbed the microphone and pointed to the Obama family, telling them that Allen's congregation liked to get up and move during the service.

"If you came in here to sit and be still, I'm sorry. Move down the street," said one associate minister, drawing a loud cheer. "Excuse me, first family, but we like to get crazy up in here. You might see shoes flying, hair flying. But we are praising the Lord."

It was the kind of spirited service Obama attended for years as a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and he did his best to blend into the crowd. He read along during the hymns, nodded his head repeatedly during the sermon and spent a few minutes bouncing the pastor's grandchild on his lap.

During one song, Obama nudged his older daughter, Malia, and tried to persuade her to dance. "Come on," he said. Then he swayed his shoulders and clapped his hands with exaggerated enthusiasm until Malia started to laugh.

Few who sat behind Obama looked as relaxed. Two Secret Service officers occupied the pew behind the first family and acted as a moving shield, standing when they stood, swaying when the Obamas swayed, sitting when they sat. Ten ushers stood in the center aisle, wearing black suits and white gloves. Secret Service agents wore headsets and kept lookout from the church balcony. Some parishioners held cellphone cameras above their heads to take pictures of the president.

Most speakers also focused, at least momentarily, on Obama's attendance. Bell, the pastor, called him "the most intelligent, most anointed, most charismatic president this country has ever seen." Then he looked at Obama and said: "God has his hands all over you."

But Obama never responded to the attention. He offered no grand wave or parade of handshakes. He never turned around to look at the congregation behind him. His first significant movement came at the end of the service, when he walked to the pulpit to kneel and take Communion with his family. As a bishop recited the Lord's Prayer, Obama ate a wafer and drank and thimble-sized glass of grape juice.

"Mr. President, we know you are going to do great for this country," said Bishop Adam J. Richardson, leader of the second Episcopal district of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Obama nodded and walked out the side entrance. A few minutes later, the congregation filtered out the front door. The tent for Obama's arrival had been disassembled. The Secret Service had left. Police had taken down barricades and reopened the streets to traffic. Several dozen parishioners lingered outside, sharing their hazy digital photos of Obama and talking about what his visit had meant.

Then his motorcade traveled back across the Anacostia and past the cherry blossoms, delivering him back home after two hours at church.

Staff writer Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company