Churches in U.S. reflect on Obama election

Obama Churches
Dr. Shirley Caesar-Williams prays for President-elect Barack Obama during a church service at Mt. Calvary Word of God Church in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday.Jim Bounds / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pastor Shirley Caesar-Williams opened her sermon Sunday at Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church with a prayer of thanks for the election of Barack Obama — at the risk of her flock getting "more excited over this than you do over the word."

"God has vindicated the black folk," the Grammy-winning gospel singer said as a member of the congregation waved an American flag and another marched among the pews blowing a ram's horn.

"Too long we've been at the bottom of the totem pole, but he has vindicated us, hallelujah," she cried. "I don't know about you, but I don't have nothing to put my head down for, praise God. Because when I look toward Washington, D.C., we got a new family coming in. We got a new family coming in. And you know what? They look like us. Amen, amen. They look like us."

Asking God for wisdom
Across the country, from a mostly white church in the Southwest to the pulpit from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his message of equality and nonviolent change, Christian clergy members on Sunday asked God to give Obama the wisdom and strength to lead the country out of what many consider a wilderness of despair and gloom.

And on the day King famously called "the most segregated day of the week," they also called for the nation to come together behind the man who will be the first black president.

In his Web message last week, senior pastor Gregg Matte of Houston's 167-year-old First Baptist Church decried a society that has turned to government as its savior.

"Today," he wrote, "Hollywood is our pastor, technology is our Bible, charisma is our value and Barack Obama is our President."

But from the pulpit Sunday, Matte asked the 1,000 or so mostly white faces staring back at him to "lift up President-elect Obama" even if he wasn't their choice on Tuesday.

"Regardless of whether you voted for him or not, he's now our president come Jan. 20," he said. "So we're going to come behind him and pray for him and pray for wisdom, that God will give him wisdom and be able to really speak to his heart."

Patriotism in defeat
At a white church in Mississippi, where roughly nine in 10 whites voted for Republican John McCain, the scene was more muted.

The neighborhood around the Alta Woods United Methodist Church in Jackson has seen its demographics shift from white to black in recent decades, and most of the parishioners have moved to the suburbs. While Pastor David W. Carroll recognized Obama's election as a "historic shift," he said he was also struck by McCain's patriotism in defeat.

"As the crowd began to boo a little bit ... he quieted them down and said, 'Now is not my time, but I'm an American first and I will serve the president-elect,'" he said. "In a loss, he showed us still how he could win through his service."

But in black churches from the capital of the Confederacy to the streets of Harlem, it was all about Obama.

At Hungary Road Baptist Church in a working-class suburb of Richmond, Va., the two-hour, 40-minute service was part celebration, part history lesson, led by a pastor who had felt the sting of the Jim Crow South. The Rev. J. Rayfield Vines Jr., pastor of the predominantly African-American congregation, paused briefly as he recalled the indignities he endured but did not bow to growing up Suffolk, in southeastern Virginia.

"I was there when you had ride in the back of the bus," Vines said under a simple cross illuminated by eight light bulbs. "I was there when you went to the department store and you couldn't try on the clothes. I was there when they had a colored toilet and a white toilet."

'I never thought that in this lifetime'
The pastor said he shared his humiliations Sunday to help give those "who had not tasted the bitterness of segregation ... an idea why we all shouted."

"My cup runneth over on Tuesday night," Vines said. "My eyes have seen the glory."

Inside Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, Obama T-shirts vied with colorful plumed hats as a fashion statement. Church member Sheila Chestnut, 61, wore a rhinestone Obama pin on her suit lapel.

"I am so happy," she said. "I cried so much. I never thought that in this lifetime I would live to see an African-American become president of these United States."

When the Rev. Calvin Butts invited the congregation to stand up "and give God praise for the election," several hundred churchgoers rose as one, lifted their hands in the air and gave a sustained cheer, then chanted, "Yes we can! Yes we can!"

At Apostolic Church of God on Chicago's South Side, less than two miles from Obama's home, jubilant Sunday services were peppered with references to the election and calls to be grateful for his victory.

"We thank the Lord for this second Sunday (in November) after the first Tuesday," Dr. Byron Brazier said to resounding applause and cheers from the mostly black congregation. "This is a wonderful time to be alive."

Obama spoke at Apostolic on Father's Day in his first address to a congregation after leaving his longtime church, Trinity United Church of Christ, following inflammatory remarks there by his former longtime pastor and others.

Weight of history palpable
Perhaps nowhere was the weight of history more palpable Sunday than at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, from whose pulpit King spread his message of inclusion and across from which he lies entombed.

When the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock tried to put into words what it meant for Obama to win Virginia, where the first American slaves landed nearly 400 years ago, his words were drowned out by the applause and cheers from a capacity crowd whose faces captured the entire spectrum of the human rainbow.

"Barack Obama stood against the fierce tide of history and achieved the unimaginable," he said. "But he did not get here by himself. Give God some credit. He is the Lord."

But while he told the congregation that it was a time for celebration, he also reminded them it was "a serious time."

"We still have a whole lot of work to do," he said. "You have two little girls who will grow up in the White House. Around the corner, you have two little girls who will grow up in a crack house."

Among those in attendance was the slain civil rights leader's sister, Christine King Farris. She was reminded of her brother's prescience.

"As he predicted the night before he left us, 'I may not be with you, but as a people we will reach the promised land,'" she said stoically. "That promised land was realized Tuesday. Yes, it is our promised land."