- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

A bevy of religious leaders, including the first woman to preach at an inaugural prayer service, gave newly sworn-in President Obama plenty of spiritual advice Wednesday.

On his first full morning in office, Mr. Obama mostly stood with his hands clasped before him during prayer times at the National Prayer Service at the Washington Cathedral. He and his wife, Michelle, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his wife, Jill, and former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, occupied the front row.

Facing them were about two dozen clergy from several denominations gathered for 90 minutes of prayers, reflections, readings and traditional American hymns all with the same theme of asking the Almighty to bless the country and its new chief executive.

“Give us strength in our wounded and broken places,” prayed the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., pastor emeritus of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland.

The Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in North America, told Mr. Obama that America looks to him to stay focused on his “ethical center.”

She added, “We, the nation that you serve, need you to hold the ground of your deepest values, of our deepest values. Beyond this moment of high hopes, we need you to stay focused on our shared hopes, so that we can continue to hope, too.”

Twenty minutes later, she finished with a recitation from the famous black church hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” ending with her arms flung wide in a dramatic flourish.

Unlike the rest of the congregation, the new president did not applaud at that point, although he did clap when vocalist Wintley Phipps brought down the house with a gospel rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Although 3,200 seats were set out for the occasion, only half of them were filled, mostly with diplomats, members of Congress and cathedral officials and benefactors.

Eight people representing various religions read aloud prayers for the nation, including gynecologist Dr. Uma V. Mysorekar, President of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. She was the first Hindu woman asked to appear at the event. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, was also in the group, as was the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners.

“My prayers for decades have been answered in this minute,” said Mr. Wallis in an interview, adding he has known Mr. Obama for 10 years. “We’ve been talking faith and politics for a long time.”

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, longtime friend of now former President George W. Bush, also offered a prayer for wisdom from God. He later said in an interview that Mr. Obama will succeed “if he surrounds himself with the best and brightest who have integrity, and hopefully who’ll tell him what he needs to hear whether he wants to or not.”

These counselors need to be a diverse lot, he added.

“I believe he has the confidence and the character to hear conversation he doesn’t agree with,” Mr. Caldwell concluded. “The longer a president stays in office, the more homogenized the input from outside the Beltway.”

Joshua Dubois, the man heading up religious outreach for the presidential transition team, put together the clergy guest list but left out the Sikhs. The omission nettled Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education to the point that he contacted Mr. Dubois, asking for tickets to the service.

Wearing a bright yellow turban, Mr. Singh showed up at the cathedral at 6:20 a.m. to be sure to get a seat on the front row in the north transcept facing the new president.

“We have a lot of work to do to educate our leaders,” he said. “Obama mentioned Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers in his inaugural speech but not Sikhs. And we are the world’s fifth-largest religion.”

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