Thursday, April 9, 2009

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.

Also a strong possibility is Foundry United Methodist, where the Clintons attended services. Dean J. Snyder, Foundry’s senior minister, said he knew his church was under consideration but declined to offer any specifics about where it may rank on the list. He did note that congregants were patient and welcoming despite the Secret Service installation of metal detectors for the Clintons. Fifteen presidents have attended Foundry.

“This is a very welcoming congregation, and that’s true whether you’re talking about the president of the United States or a homeless person,” he said. His aim is for the president to find a congregation “that will support and nurture them and where their faith can continue to grow and deepen.”

Few churches would say whether they are under consideration, but in the case of Nineteenth Street Baptist, a straight shot from the White House up 16th Street, little vetting would be needed for the president to attend.

Secret Service did a “thorough” check of the facility and Obama aides investigated the church’s history and mission when the Obama family attended a Jan. 18 service just before he was inaugurated, said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the church’s senior pastor. Mr. Harkins offered a prayer for the Obamas that Sunday and said “the world will look with hope and joy and expectation to this place.”

“We trust they will make the decision and I will be thankful and happy for whatever choice they make,” he told The Washington Times Wednesday, adding that he is not lobbying to be chosen. “I’m genuinely trusting God in all of this.”

The Church of the Epiphany, a short walk from the White House, has a diverse congregation that is nearly a quarter Hispanic, said the Rev. Randolph Charles. The church’s mission is decidedly downscale from others on the list, focusing on outreach to the downtown poor, the homeless and office workers. But the rector said that applies to Mr. Obama.

“He’s an office worker, he’s in the neighborhood,” he said with a laugh. The rector also wondered whether the Obamas would “really settle into just one congregation,” speculating that they could attend several churches in the District.

Several other churches are also in play: St. John’s Episcopal Church, at Lafayette Square across from the White House, Shiloh Baptist, considered a spiritual home of Washington’s black elite, Metropolitan Baptist, National City Christian Church - where President Lyndon B. Johnson frequently worshipped - and Western Presbyterian have been mentioned.

Although “people are having fun speculating” about which church the Obamas will choose, Mr. Randall said, the choice will say a lot about their faith and the president’s moral makeup.

“We Americans view religion as a proxy for morality. What we really want to know is whether our president is a good, decent, moral, trustworthy person, and the only way we know how to frame the question is, ‘Do you go to church and where?’ ” he said.

The Rev. Eartha Upchurch of Mount Calvary Church in Temple Hills said the decision is between the first family and God: “It’s not a political thing, it’s a spiritual thing.”

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