Black Voices

Obama At Church: The Tricky, Exciting, Distracting Business Of Worshipping With A President

The Secret Service agents arrived at Shiloh Baptist Church on a reconnaissance mission just a few days before Easter Sunday. They swept through the sanctuary, eyeing every pew from the pulpit to the balcony. Not a Bible or hymnal was left unturned. Church leaders took a vow of secrecy. Even the most respected church members were kept in the dark until the very last minute.

Easter service at any house of worship can be a painstaking affair, but this one had to go off without a hitch -- President Obama and the First Family were coming to church.

For a sitting president, even the most routine activities become complicated logistical feats. Date nights can be impersonal affairs, with gawkers and special agents lurking around every corner. Sporting events and recitals are overshadowed by the spectacle of a POTUS appearance.

Church services, which for many are a time for self-reflection and expressions of faith and fellowship, require the same planning and strategizing as any other presidential event: metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs, traffic snarls and spectators and media displacing regular attendees.

White House officials said all of the excitement and scrutiny makes attending one church with any regularity difficult for the Obamas. After several months of searching for a church home at the beginning of the president's term -- no doubt vetting the politics of the ministers and their sermons -- the First Family was unable to settle on one. In lieu of church membership, the family makes the occasional appearance at a number of historic local churches in Washington, D.C., or they attend Evergreen Chapel, the church at Camp David.

"The preparation to accommodate a president is intense,”said Bishop T.D. Jakes, who has hosted presidents and other dignitaries at The Potter's House church in Dallas. “It is ... very difficult to manage for any local church. I also think that many of them don't want to be a distraction of what should be the focal point of the service, which is to worship the Lord."

For security reasons, the Secret Service declined to answer any questions about specific security measures taken when the president is planning a trip to church.

While President Obama has not been a regular churchgoer since taking office, administration officials said the president is delivered daily devotionals and has called on a number of faith leaders from around the country for spiritual nourishment, including Bishop Jakes.

"President Obama is a committed Christian," said Joshua DuBois, head of the White House's Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, "and observing and deepening his faith is important to him."

DuBois is responsible for crafting and delivering the president's daily devotionals via email each morning by about 6 a.m. They can be anything from a passage of scripture or a quote from someone like C.S. Lewis, Howard Thurman or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jakes said these experiences allow them a couple hours of normalcy. "Without exception, I have not seen a president, whether he was in office or about to go into office or after they are out of office, who doesn't seem to really enjoy being a part of the church experience,” he said. “They love the music, they love the freedom of expression, and they love not being under such scrutiny at that time, to be able to blend in. They feel a sense normalcy that is a very precious commodity that is very hard for them to come by."

Beyond the inconvenience of extensive security measures, there are the congregants themselves who want to get a glimpse of the president. Otherwise proper and dutiful churchgoers have been known to whip out their cellphones and snap a few pictures of President Obama, more focused on him than the sermon.

"It has always been an issue, going back even to the 19th century," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, an author and historian who has written about presidential history and customs. Abraham Lincoln would draw such a crowd when he attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington that he would reportedly sit in the pastor's office so that he could hear the sermon and remain unseen.

President William McKinley was a strict Methodist who, before becoming president, went to church every Sunday in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. After moving to the White House, going to church became a nightmare.

"It was a really difficult thing, because he really felt like the whole point of it for him was to find some peace, spirituality and reflection," Anthony said of McKinley. "He really hated the experience."

While Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, he frequented his hometown church in Hyde Park, New York. Churchgoers and community folks grew weary of the press and attention drawn to their little country church. Roosevelt didn't help much, historians say. He informally christened the place, "The President's Church." (Church members would reportedly respond, "It used to be God's church.")

Dwight D. Eisenhower once blasted the pastor of his Presbyterian church for publicizing his membership and threatened never to return if it happened again.

John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president, attended Mass nearly every weekend with his family. Anthony said that Kennedy often had to be dragged there by the first lady.

Richard Nixon, who was raised a Quaker, would be the first to hold interfaith services at the White House, inviting religious leaders from different faiths to join in general prayers and a sermon.

Ronald Reagan, who was also the target of an assassination attempt, spent most of his weekends with his family at Camp David. To deal with security issues and for convenience, he built Evergreen Chapel there, which has been frequented by the presidents ever since.

Jimmy Carter, a Baptist minister, continued to teach Sunday school during his four years in Washington.

Church-going has also played a major role in some political flare-ups.

In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was in office, stories about his affair with his slave and mistress, Sally Hemmings, was hot fodder for gossip hounds and the press. Jefferson, who questioned the divinity of Jesus and was not a religious man, started showing up with his pregnant daughter, Martha, at religious services then held at the Capitol to demonstrate his piety. He was an early adopter of the idea that church attendance could be a political asset.

Lyndon B. Johnson once attended a church near Williamsburg, Virginia, Anthony said, and was forced to sit through a sermon in which the minister blasted the government's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Obama's own church affiliation, of course, has been a source of controversy. When videos featuring the sermons of his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and his fiery and racially polarizing rhetoric from the pulpit went viral, then-Senator Obama was forced to denounce his spiritual mentor and distance himself from that church.

“Who you are as president is kind of an armor around you, protecting who you are as a person,” Anthony said. “That's the paradox of a president going to church. He is going there to be treated before the eyes of nature or God or savior or creator, to worship and to be one among equals with all other human beings, and yet, they get him in and out as quickly as possible and the people are not allow to come up and touch him or even say hello."


For Obama, given his standing as the country's first president of color, attending church with a traditional African-American congregation becomes even more of an exhibition.

When a visit to the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church was planned in 2010 to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Cornelius Wheeler said he was given 10 days notice.

In the coming days the Secret Service came to survey the place and coordinate a plan of action. He said he subsequently ran down a list of "do-nots" to his congregation.

Do not approach the president.
Do not approach the balcony railing.
By all means, do not act a fool.

That Sunday the congregation swelled from its normal 600 or so to more than 750. No sooner had Obama stepped to the pulpit, the cellphones were in the air and photos were being snapped.

"They are still excited," Wheeler said of his congregation. "It's been two years, but it's a signal event that the first African-American president came to our church."

Back at Shiloh Baptist Church last Easter, a few days before Sunday service, word began to trickle out that the president would be coming to visit.

"We don't know how it leaked," said Rev. Thomas Bowen, a minister at Shiloh, a historic black church built by freed slaves. Perhaps an overly excited deacon. An usher who had been waiting to lay eyes on the president. Or the men and women of the choir, whose lips ran a little looser than normal.

Or maybe it was all the strangers in dark suits milling about the church.

"We were told not to talk about it but, hey..." Barbara Williams, a member of Shiloh's choir, said with a laugh. "We knew it was as a special guest. The only person that could create that kind of arrangement would be the president."

"We've had other presidents to worship with us, but never have we had the scrutiny that came with President Obama," Bowen said.

Hours before the president was to arrive for the 10 a.m. service, the Secret Service agents made their final preparations. The second row would be kept empty for the First Family. The choir would be cordoned off in a separate area, a bubble of special agents would be sprinkled among the pews, and sections of the church would be off-limits to the congregation.

Certain entrances for the ministers, ushers and everyone who had a role in the service. Everyone would be searched. If anyone had to leave the church and return, they'd be searched again.

"It was really well organized, but terribly inconvenient," said Williams, who, with her fellow choir members, had to arrive two hours earlier than normal. "There's the security, they have to sweep the church, they have the dogs, there are places that we can't go in our own church. And you know what? It's okay, because we don't want anything to happen to him, particularly in our house."

As the choir sang a rousing rendition of "Total Praise" to keep the energy high before the guest of honor arrived, the last of the congregants were seated.

And then came the big moment.

The president, the First Lady, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, strode in. As the first family was ushered to their reserved pew in the front, the choir lifted its voice.

"It was really magical," Williams said. "There he was, and with his wife and his children -- you know, it was such a magical moment."

When the congregation talked back to the preacher, so did the Obamas. When it was time to stand up and clap and sing with the choir, so did they.

At the service's conclusion, the president was being led out by the Secret Service when he broke away and headed over to 98-year-old Euna Smith, a long-time member and matriarch of the church. She had been meant to greet the president on his arrival but had been unable to. Obama took her hand in his and smiled. After the service, she just couldn't stop talking about how she had met the first black president of the United States. A few days later the White House sent Smith a copy of a photograph taken by a White House staffer.

"It was awesome for her and for us too, to know that he would care enough to make it special for her," Williams said. (Smith died in September.)

"Every other day, [presidents] are dealing with the prospect of terrorist attacks, protecting our borders, dealing with the economy and all of the horrific issues that they have to ward off," Bishop Jakes said. "To be able to be in a calm place and a peaceful place and be rejuvenated by the Word is special for them."