President Obama and the first family worshiped Easter Sunday at the 212-year-old Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, where the minister mixed bible verse with social justice.
Started by slaves in 1803, Alfred Street is the oldest and most prominent African American church in Northern Virginia, with a membership of more than 7,000.
After selections from the church’s young adult choir, Rev. Howard-John Wesley, preached a sermon titled “The Resurrection Matters,” that included modern examples of how people are forced to make choices about things in life, ranging from their choice of civil rights leaders to the kind of music they enjoy.
“ Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr….Prince or Michael Jackson; Biggie or Tupac; New Edition with Bobbie Brown or without,” Wesley said. “Even today in our political landscape, a line in the sand is drawn forcing you to make a decision on where you stand.”
“Where do you stand with rights for same-sex couples…where do you stand on gun reform, where do you stand with police body cameras? Wesley asked the church. “Where do you stand on affordable health care? Life has a way of making you make a decision. .Where you stand on the resurrection of Jesus Christ: You either believe it or you reject it.
Wesley, 42, who has been at Alfred Street for seven years, said in an interview, “It was an honor to just worship with the president. It allows us to know that he recognizes the work that God is doing in our church.”
Wesley is known as a progressive leader in the faith community, supporting civil rights protections for same sex couples.
Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton and president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, said Wesley’s sermon and the president’s visit were significant because they show that the black church is not monolithic when it comes to social issues like gay marriage.
“I think what we are seeing is a shift in communities of faith in which African-American faith leaders are coming out in support of progressive causes, including LGBT rights, because many see a connection between Jesus and justice,” Coates said.
Coates noted that Saturday marked the 37th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Thirty-seven years ago, Dr. King lost his life and to see an African-American president come to a historically black church on Easter Sunday is not only spiritually relevant but socially and historically relevant.”
But Wesley said Obama’s visit wasn’t about politics. “The biggest thing for me is knowing and believing that the president is a man of faith who just wanted to hear the good news of the Resurrection. He really enjoyed the worship.”
Obama has visited several District churches since he has been in the White House, but this was his first visit to a church in Northern Virginia. Last year the first family attended the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in the District for Easter and the year before they attended St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House.
“ I applaud the fact that he stepped outside of the District to attend church,” said Rev. Derek, pastor of Nineteenth St. “Alfred Street is a historic and relevant African American church.”
Harkins, who served as a faith adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said: “The issue of equality is part of a larger conversation about justice for all people that all of us are concerned about.”