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How the Obama 'Ground Game' Was Church for Me

The days were long, but the dedication of these volunteers was inspiring. When I would look around the room, I knew I wasn't surrounded by my regular church family, but I was surprised that it still felt like church for me.
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For the first time since I was a teenager, I did not attend my own church for three Sundays in a row (for a reason other than sickness or travel). Over these last few weeks and months, I have been actively volunteering for the campaign to reelect President Obama here in Pennsylvania. As a Presbyterian minister, and someone who reads and reflects on the Bible daily, purposefully missing church like this was a big deal for me. And yet, what I found working in the "ground game" -- as the campaign folks call it -- surprised me.

As you can imagine, getting ready for Election Day takes an enormous amount of preparation. When I volunteered as a phone-bank director and rides coordinator during the 2008 campaign, I got a sense of what the "ground game" was like. This time around, I was asked to be a staging location director, upping both my involvement and time commitment to the campaign. It was something I felt strongly called to do.

Canvassing in the last two months was done on Saturdays and Sundays when volunteers were most available and people more likely to be home. On the two weekends prior to the big "Get Out The Vote" (GOTV) weekend, right before Tuesday's election, we practiced and prepared. Then Saturday through Tuesday, including Sunday morning, at one of the volunteers' lovely red brick home, I greeted and sent out door-to-door canvassers from 8 a.m. until after 9 p.m., while other volunteers made phone calls in shifts all day long.

The days were long, but the dedication of these volunteers was inspiring. When I would look around the room, I knew I wasn't surrounded by my regular church family, but I was surprised that it still felt like church for me. Of course, it was church in a uniquely different way from the singing, prayers, Bible reading and sermon that I experience with familiar friends in worship most Sundays. It was different, but it was definitely church.

What made the pivotally successful Obama "ground game" church for me? The way I saw it, our work together for President Obama's reelection was prayer in action.

For students of prayer, it is commonly known that prayer is both an inner journey and an outer journey. Personal and communal prayers addressed to God, spoken or silent, constitute the inner journey. Working in the world for those yearnings that we place before God is what is called the outer journey. Prayer takes the form of activity that becomes God's hands and feet to bring about what one faithfully perceives to be God's will.

"Justice is what love looks like in public," Cornel West once said. It has been clear to me that Barack Obama has known this from the start of his rise to power as a community organizer. Working with faith communities, he has lived it in every moment of his public life and will continue to do this in his second term as president. I pray for justice in my words directed to God. I have joined God in creating justice by helping a whole crew of people learn how to start a conversation with strangers at their doors or on the phone about supporting Barack Obama for president. This is the outer journey of prayer for me. This is church.

We also built a community, especially during the intense four days of Nov. 3 through Election Day, Nov. 6. We didn't just say "hello and goodbye" to the canvassers. Before they left with their clipboards, address lists and scripts, we made sure that they felt confident about what they were doing and why it was important. We reminded them that experience has shown how conversations with an enthusiastic supporter of a political candidate have a clear impact on voter turnout. We made sure they were dressed warmly enough.

We were blessed that our host, the homeowner and also "Comfort Captain," was happy to provide homemade soup and sandwiches every day to keep both phone-bankers and canvassers fed and comfortable. We followed the directions for recruiting from the central office, making sure we asked everyone to come back again. Many, many of them did so that we could greet them with their first names and a big smile, sharing an excitement about the unpredictable experience of encountering strangers by phone or face-to-face and creating a connection. It was hard to part when their work was done because we had built what I know as church.

And it was clear to me that we all shared what Sarah Palin derided as "that hopey, changey thing." True, it did not always go smoothly for us over the past four years, especially given the mess President Obama was handed when he was inaugurated. But our faith in "hope and change" has matured so that we have a more realistic readiness to join Bruce Springsteen in the chorus to his hokey campaign song, "Forward and away we go!" (So we did have a song to sing like we do on Sundays in church, though I confess I cannot compare this song to the hymns I am used to singing!)

At our staging location we forged a community that shared faith, hope and love. I trust that sounds a lot like church to you.

This past Sunday, I returned to my chair in my congregation, giving thanks to God for the people I met and came to call friends over these past weeks. I also gave thanks to God for providing me the chance to experience this different kind of church. While I may not have attended services for three Sundays in a row, I was surprised and blessed to experience this amazing way to be in church.

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