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Washington churches eye a prize — the Obamas

The invitations have come in neatly typed letters, whispered entreaties and please-join-us blogs. The prize? The most sought after churchgoers in Washington: President Obama and his family.
/ Source: The New York Times

The invitations have come in neatly typed letters, whispered entreaties and please-join-us blogs. They have come from predominantly white churches and predominantly black churches, venerable churches with distinguished lineages and smaller, plucky churches with little more than spirit and gumption.

The prize? The most sought after churchgoers in Washington: President Obama and his family.

Mr. Obama’s search for a church home has touched off a frenzied competition among ministers of various colors and creeds who are wooing the first family. The president, in turn, has sent emissaries to observe worship services, interview congregants and scrutinize pastors. (His aides even searched YouTube to vet one local minister.)

On Easter Sunday, after nearly three months in the White House, the Obamas are expected to visit a church in an audition of sorts. Administration officials, who were still completing the president’s Easter plans, said on Friday that he had yet to settle on a spiritual home.

In January, Mr. Obama prayed at his first Sunday service here at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, where hundreds of black professionals worship in a gleaming white sanctuary well beyond this city’s corridors of power. (The president took notes.) Pastors and congregants are eagerly waiting to see where he goes next.

“It’s extremely competitive,” said Michael A. Brown, a city councilman here who has put in a good word for his church, Nineteenth Street Baptist, with well-connected friends. “Every church in the city is trying to attract the Obamas.”

Aides say Mr. Obama is carefully considering his decision. His unhurried pace and overtures to Nineteenth Street Baptist and other congregations offer insight into his religious priorities and practices as he strives to find a church that will nurture his family, his faith and his desire to engage with communities beyond official Washington.

Methodical search
Mr. Obama is considering black and multiracial churches that are not the biggest or best known here, reaching beyond the constellation of institutions that have traditionally appealed to the nation’s leaders, his aides say.

He is engaging in a methodical search that reflects, in part, his deliberative nature and his desire to avoid a repeat of the spectacle that surrounded his break with his previous pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The Obamas did not attend church every Sunday back home in Chicago and may follow the same pattern here, sustaining religious life at times with daily prayer, Bible readings and consultations with friendly pastors, some of his spiritual counselors say.

Most modern presidents have not attended Sunday services regularly, historians say.

Mr. Obama is seeking “a bit of refuge from the business of Washington, a space where he can reflect on his own life and his relationship with God,” said Joshua Dubois, the president’s chief adviser on faith.

But the president’s spiritual quest has also revived the awkward questions that often simmer in a city where blacks and whites, rich and poor still live in largely separate worlds: Will the nation’s first black president join a predominantly black church or a predominantly white one? Will he pray in a wealthy community or in a neighborhood that is less prosperous?

“He is anxious to bridge those divides,” said Terry Lynch, director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations here. “But it’s a difficult process. Wherever he goes to church is going to be a public issue.”

Mr. Obama’s aides have reached out to several churches, including Nineteenth Street Baptist and Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, which both have middle-class black congregations and are in predominantly black, mixed-income neighborhoods rarely frequented by American presidents.

They have also contacted Calvary Baptist Church and National City Christian Church, multiracial churches closer to the White House. Pastors at both churches have written to the Obamas. The Rev. Amy Butler of Calvary Baptist posted her invitation on her blog.

“In a city where political posturing takes up most folks’ waking hours Monday through Friday, come Sunday morning in worship lots of people get up and do it again ... at church,” Ms. Butler wrote. “Calvary is a place where we try really hard to get real.”

Historians say few precedents exist for such a public courtship. Most presidents have kept their church affiliations when they moved into the White House. Mr. Obama, however, broke with Trinity United Church of Christ after Mr. Wright’s controversial sermons on race and patriotism nearly derailed his presidential campaign, making him something of a religious free agent.

People who know the president believe he is likely to choose a predominantly black or diverse church because he has often credited the African-American religious tradition and its emphasis on community activism with inspiring him to embrace his Christian faith.

Several of the churches on his short list seem to fit that bill. Nineteenth Street Baptist, with a congregation of 1,200 people, runs a food pantry and works to prevent and expand awareness of H.I.V. and AIDS.

Peoples Congregational, which has 2,200 members, also feeds the poor. National City Christian Church, which has about 200 members, works with the homeless. Calvary Baptist, with about 350 members, runs an after-school program. (It also has a Thursday night basketball game, which might hold some appeal to a hoops-shooting president.)

Such churches might also provide some cultural grounding for Mr. Obama’s daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, who attended a black church growing up, wants her girls to maintain a sense of normalcy, and membership in a racially and economically diverse church might help provide that.

And while Nineteenth Street Baptist and Peoples Congregational are not the biggest black churches here, they are well known to Mr. Obama’s administration officials and friends.

Melody C. Barnes, Mr. Obama’s domestic policy director, is a member of Peoples Congregational. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who is friendly with Mr. Obama, has prayed at Nineteenth Street Baptist. And Rev. Jim Wallis, a left-leaning evangelical and a friend of Mr. Obama, has had good relationships with the clergy at National City Christian.

Mr. Obama’s advisers say he has not ruled out larger predominantly black churches like Metropolitan Baptist or Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal, which claims Frederick Douglass and Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Washington power lawyer, among the prominent worshipers who have prayed in its pews.

Clinton or Lincoln?
Nor have they ruled out churches favored by American presidents like Foundry United Methodist, where President Bill Clinton worshiped, or New York Avenue Presbyterian, where President Abraham Lincoln prayed. (In a letter to the president, the Rev. Roger J. Gench of New York Avenue Presbyterian noted that his church still possessed Lincoln’s pew and an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.)

But most of those churches have not been contacted so far by Mr. Obama’s aides, according to their ministers, though officials at Foundry declined to comment. (Mr. Obama did attend special inauguration services at St. John’s Church and the Washington National Cathedral, institutions favored by presidents.)

Dwight N. Hopkins, a theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School who knows the Obama family, said he would not be surprised if the Obamas avoided a big church with a fancy membership list.

Mr. Hopkins said Trinity was not the church favored by prominent black politicians in Chicago. But Mr. Obama was drawn to its fusion of Scripture and community activism.

“If their decision to join Trinity in Chicago is any indication,” Mr. Hopkins said, “then they’re going to follow an unpredictable path.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.