Many Washington D.C. Churches Hope to Attract New First Family

November 24, 2008 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

washington-dc-church.jpgThere have been letters, discreet inquiries and bold appeals. Some are
using their connections; others are just seeking a foot in the door.

It’s part of the spirited competition among Washington churches to land the most sought-after Christians in town: the Obama family.

Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal — all have been courting the Obamas to be regulars in their pews on Sunday mornings.

When Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in Northwest Washington
decided to woo the Obamas, a friend in the local faith community had
some advice: “He just laughed and told me that I should get in line.”

She made a pitch to the Obamas that includes the following: We’re diverse and multigenerational, we’re 10 blocks from the White House, the pastor (Butler) is from Hawaii and attended Obama’s rival high school, and “the sermons rock!”

Calvary’s outreach is being replayed all over town as churches try
to maneuver themselves to attract the nation’s first African American
president and his family to their house of worship.

They are waging a “quiet but intense campaign . . . to put their best foot forward,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

Some churches started their campaign even before Obama won the
election. Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ sent a
letter to the Obama campaign several months ago inviting the family to
worship with them.

“We thought we’d better get something out there,” said the Rev. Rich
Smith, senior minister of Westmoreland. “It seemed like it would be
worth a shot anyway.”

The excitement astonishes presidential historians.

“I can’t recall another situation where there is this kind of
interest before the president even takes office in terms of where he is
going to go to church, and churches campaigning for his attendance,”
said Gary Scott Smith, author of “Faith and the Presidency” and a
history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “This is
unique in American political history.”

The historic nature of the new First Family — as the first African
Americans and the first in decades with small children — plus Obama’s
high-profile difficulties with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright,
is placing unprecedented attention on the family’s choice of a church.
Normally, say historians and members of previous administrations, the
selection rarely raises a ruckus.

“I don’t remember that kind of excitement,” said Mary Finch Hoyt,
former press secretary for Rosalynn Carter. The Carters attended First
Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C., the faith home of
several previous presidents. “After the initial questions about what
being ‘born again’ means were answered satisfactorily, their religion
and worship habits were more or less taken for granted,” Hoyt said.

Some ministers say they have been told that the Obamas won’t make a
decision until January. The Obamas have not moved to a new church in
Chicago since leaving Wright’s church, and the transition team isn’t
saying whether they have chosen a church here — or if they’ve begun
the search.

But plenty of others are weighing in.

Denominational leaders are getting into the act, pointing out how their faith’s beliefs line up with Obama’s.

Bishop John School, who heads the Baltimore-Washington Conference of
the United Methodist Church, sent Obama a list of local United
Methodist churches.

“Our congregations would be glad to welcome you, your family, your
staff and their families to be part of our communities of prayer and
service,” his letter said. “Your message of personal responsibility and
social justice are important United Methodist themes.”

The United Church of Christ, the denomination of Obama’s former church,
United Trinity Church of Christ, is in the running, too. UCC General
Minister and President John Thomas
dropped Obama a note three days after the election “offering the
hospitality of our congregations in Washington as places of nurture,
sanctuary and encouragement.”

Churches that have hosted former presidents aren’t far behind. First
Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C., at which five previous
presidents have worshiped, has offered itself for a pre-inaugural
service or as a church home for the Obamas, said Dennis Lambert, church
administrator.

In his letter, Luis León, rector of St. John’s Church, Lafayette
Square, an Episcopal church just steps from the White House, pointed
out that every president since James Madison has attended St. John’s at least once during their administration.

“We, of course, would be delighted if he chose to attend here,” Leon said.

Churches haven’t hesitated to use their political connections. Among
others, Foundry United Methodist, spiritual home of the Clintons, has
used members with connections to the Obamas as conduits.

“We have attempted to communicate to both the incoming
administration and also to those newly elected to Congress that we see
part of our mission to be a spiritual home for people serving in our
government,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dean Snyder.

Many churches are stressing their community activism and
social-justice outreach to a president whose professional background
includes such involvement. New York Avenue Presbyterian is touting its
involvement with Washington Interfaith Network and its community
organizing, Westmoreland has pointed out its social outreach and
Calvary is promoting its “faith that matters.”

It isn’t easy hosting a president. Aside from extensive security
sweeps, church members are generally limited to entering through one
door, often leading to lines, and must go through metal detectors and
submit to those Secret Service pokes through handbags and other bags.

And given the attention to Wright’s fiery sermons when they were posted on YouTube, some ministers have worried about the scrutiny over what they say ending up part of the national dialogue.

Nonetheless, said Lynch, “It’s prestigious to have [the Obamas] attend
— it’s such a historic presidency — which outweighs the significant
challenges and difficulties.”

Source: Washington Post

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