Rev. Ronald Braxton concludes his sermon by leading the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in a special prayer for President Obama in Washington, DC on January 20, 2013. (Hamil Harris/TWP)

A boisterous chant of “forward” rolled from the pews of a District church Sunday , echoing the sermon and a campaign slogan of Barack Obama as the president attended a spirited worship service at one of the capital’s oldest African American congregations.

The First Family and relatives spent about an hour at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, before departing for his official swearing in to start his second term.

They exited church shortly after 10:30 a.m. heading to the noontime ceremony in the White House.

The church service knit the secular with the sacred.

The congregation rose to sing “Happy Birthday” to Michelle Obama, who turned 49 Thursday, and also broke into a call and response as Metropolitan’s pastor, the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, turned to Exodus Chapter 14 for his sermon.

Prior to being sworn in as president for the second time, President Obama attended service at one of the oldest African American churches in D.C. Rev. Ronald E. Braxton led the service. (Hamil Harris/The Washington Post)

Braxton recalled the Old Testament account of Moses and the Israelites as they fled persecution and confronted the Red Sea in their path. “The people couldn’t turn around. The only thing that they could do was to go forward,” said Braxton as he invoked that example for the President and the country as they confront obstacles.

“Mr President....Never let fear blind you of the power, potential and possibilities that rest only in the hands of God,” Braxton said.

The Obamas sat in the second row of pews as they returned to the church at 1518 M Street NW, where they also had attended a 2011 service on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The red brick and stone church is celebrating its 175th anniversary and sits snugly between two modern office buildings.

The history of the church runs through the congregation. Metropolitan member Ernest Green was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957 in Arkansas. “For the President to worship with us before he is sworn as President is a high moment for all of us,” Green said.

The president has not a joined a church in Washington and most frequently attends St. John’s Church, an Episcopal church close to the White House. Its rector, the Rev. Luis Leon, is scheduled to offer the benediction during Obama’s ceremonial public inauguration Monday.

“I wanted my children to know the significance of this occasion,” said Krystal Yore-Evans, who had driven with her two daughters--ages 7 and 16-- and a cousin from Chicago to the District to volunteer at inaugural events. They all were in line in the dark by 6: 30 a.m. Sunday to get their church seats and join in as the choir sang “Thank You Lord,” while awaiting the Obamas.

For Gwendolyn Perry of Woonsocket, R.I., the church visit was a repeat of the trip she made for Obama’s first inaugural and she joined a line that stretched along the city block.

She got her seat and raised her arm in a wave of prayer as Braxton asked the congregation to extend their hands towards the First Family to bolster them.

Braxton escorted the First Family as they left and then came back to the pulpit to say the President had left them with a request to “keep on praying for me.”