Obamas seek new church as Easter nears

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With Easter four days away, the Great Church Search is on for the Obamas, who are seeking a presidential place of worship in Washington nearly a year after a divisive break from their Chicago church and the incendiary sermons of its controversial pastor.

White House aides and close friends of the family have been quietly checking out D.C. churches on a shortlist - maybe a dozen in all - and attending services, speaking with pastors, reverends and rectors and reporting back to the Obamas, said one White House source familiar with the search.

President Obama’s advisers have visited, among others, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church and the Foundry United Methodist Church - attended by former President Bill Clinton and which boasts as a mission society member Mr. Obama’s political hero, Abraham Lincoln.

Wherever the president and first lady choose to go to exercise what for most Americans is a private matter will draw great scrutiny and cross into the political realm. What's more, for the first black president, his selection carries racial ramifications: Should he choose a majority white church, blacks may be upset; should he choose a predominantly black church, whites may fear a repeat of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. debacle.

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“It's not an easy choice. He certainly got burned on the Jeremiah Wright thing. … You can understand why he might be timid,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University.

Mr. Balmer, author of “God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush,” said “symbolic freight” is attached to Mr. Obama's decision.

White House aides suggested it is likely the president will attend an Easter service somewhere this Sunday without having made a final decision about where he, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, will worship. On Thursday evening, the president and his family will mark the beginning of Passover with a Seder at the White House with friends and staff.

The Obamas officially left Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ in June after Mr. Wright's explosive sermons, deemed anti-American, made headlines. At the time, Mr. Obama said he didn't want his “church experience to be a political circus,” but that desire has become perhaps even more difficult as president.

The choice of a church brings gigantic logistical problems: The president's massive motorcade would have to be accommodated; dozens of Secret Service agents would be needed to secure the site; and parishioners would be forced to pass through metal detectors or be hand-checked before entering.

Mr. Obama has not attended a public church service since the Sunday before he was inaugurated. But the president has quietly kept up his faith, talking by phone with a handful of evangelical pastors, including Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, both of whom once served as spiritual advisers to former President George W. Bush, and the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a pillar of the civil rights movement.

There is no shortage of churches in the District competing to become the spiritual home of the new first family. The Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, senior pastor at the predominantly black Metropolitan AME Church just blocks from the White House, said his church “would be a good fit” for Mr. Obama.

“I think he would be comfortable. It has a very strong Sunday school that would be a wonderful fit for his children,” he said, noting that Mrs. Obama's mother is a member of an AME church.

The Rev. Charles A. Parker describes his Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church near Tenley Circle as “predominantly white,” but also says the Obamas would “be a good match,” at his church.

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