An article in the New York Times last week tallied up the number of times President Obama has attended church while in office: more than Reagan, less than Bush, and when it comes to all presidents, probably somewhere in between. The piece sought to make a broader point about the president’s religiosity based on these rough metrics--but that equation misses a lot else in the process. So I thought it might be illuminating to provide just a glimmer of Obama’s faith, a few moments out of many that stood out to me over the years of working and praying with our president.
One of my favorite memories in church with Obama was from 2007, at Brown Chapel A.M.E. in Selma, Alabama. The young senator was at Brown Chapel to worship and mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when civil rights activists faced dogs and batons as they marched from Selma to Montgomery.
Obama took the pulpit to deliver a powerful sermon–one of my favorites, later called “The Joshua Generation” speech, in which he masterfully linked his own diverse lineage, the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, and the political moment of that day.
But it was what happened before his formal remarks that really stood out to me. We staff had prepared a standard “acknowledgments card” for Obama to read, with the names of clergy, elected officials, and other dignitaries to thank before his speech. He read those acknowledgments but when he was finished, Senator Obama said there was one more person who hadn’t been recognized.
He looked out into the packed congregation and saw a wizened face sitting several pews back, an old man who looked to be well north of 80 years. None of the other speakers had noticed the man at that point, and we had not introduced him to Senator Obama before the service began. But Obama pointed to him and said, “and finally friends, here with us today is Dr. C.T. Vivian. Let’s pause and thank him. That’s the man Dr. Martin Luther King called the greatest preacher to ever live.”
Vivian’s smile grew wide and eyes teary at the unexpected acknowledgment. Several of us marveled at how we had missed the great Dr. Vivian–whose activism precipitated the 1965 march in the first place–and how Obama had picked his face out from so many others in the crowd. It was a beautiful nod across generations, a pause from that pulpit that I’ll never forget.
There were many other remarkable moments of worship. I remember being at Allen Chapel A.M.E. in Washington for Easter services in 2010, when the entire Obama family–Barack, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and Ms. Robinson–knelt to take the bread and wine of communion. A week earlier, a drive-by shooting had rocked that same neighborhood, taking five lives and injuring four. The First Family’s attendance at that Easter service added a bit of temporal healing in that community to the eternal hope symbolized by Christ’s body and blood.
There was also the private inauguration service last year, where Pastor Andy Stanley told the story of the Last Supper, and Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Nearly every influential politician in America was in that room; they would all take the dais at the inauguration just hours later. But they began their day hearing a pastor implore them to lead with humility, as Jesus did, even to the point of washing feet.
There were the Sundays that President Obama would walk with his family across the North Lawn of the White House and then through Lafayette Park, to hear a sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church. I’d staff them and watch as the First Family “passed the peace” with those in front and behind their pews (“The Lord be with you!” “And also with you!”), and smile as we read along with the official Episcopal Church liturgy that prayed each Sunday for “Barack, our President.” Inevitably, when it came time for the congregation to line up and take communion, a young child would walk by the First Family in awe, and his or her parents would have to gently urge them to move along, as we all smiled.
There was the beautiful, worshipful music the president heard over the years–patting his feet to the choir at Zion Baptist Church, or singing along with the young people of the Children of the Gospel Choir at Washington’s National Cathedral. When the singer Ledisi, one of the First Lady’s favorites, sang “I Feel Like Goin’ On” during a service last year, there was hardly a dry eye in the place.
As much as the president enjoyed simply attending church and worshipping with fellow believers, he has taken the pulpit himself a few times as well. One moment was at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in 2010, when he delivered a sermon on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that reflected on how faith compels us to work for justice in the world, and what the president’s own faith in God means to him.
And Obama even brought church into the White House. Three years ago the president began a tradition that few know about, and one that had never occurred before: he started hosting an Easter Prayer Breakfast, a moment of worship each year specifically with Christian leaders. There had been Passover Seders before and White House Iftars, events for Diwali, and services for other religious and non-religious traditions as well. But no president had gathered the Christian community specifically to mark its holiest day, and President Obama decided that an Easter event was past due. So he organized this breakfast, invited diverse Christian leaders from around the country, and offered brief remarks about what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant to him.
In 2010 Obama explained “what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice.” In 2011 he reflected on “The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross …” In 2012, he pondered what it must have been like for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane facing his own mortality, concluding, “It is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection …” And last year, in 2013, he shared with the audience what it was like for him to visit the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, saying, “as I approached the Altar of the Nativity, as I neared the 14-pointed Silver Star that marks the spot where Christ was born, the Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed me to, in his words, ‘the place where heaven and Earth met.’”
From these Easter services to quiet moments of worship in local pews, I could go on and on with dozens of stories about the Obama family’s sincere practice of faith. But in some ways, that’s not the point. The reality is, many of us have experienced similar sacred, private moments, pauses in our lives when the busyness of work and family melts away into brief encounters with the divine. No hash-marked tally of church attendance can reflect the importance of these moments for us, nor can it for President Obama. Perhaps instead of counting up the number of times he kneels and prays on Sundays, we should allow him and his family to worship as they please, and simply pray that God will sustain them, and sustain us, in these thrilling, challenging times.