The Pastor and the President: A Tale of Faith

Obama's critics may deny it. His supporters may exploit it. The cynical may doubt it. Yet, the tale is true and it belongs to us.
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The conventional wisdom is that the political left in America is suspicious of stories of presidential faith and the political right is suspicious of stories of presidential faith that involve Barack Obama. What we often lose in the crush between the two are those tender, endearing episodes that sometimes arise from a presidency and become treasured in American memory.

There is such a tale and it deserves to be told. It does reveal something of the spirituality of the current American president but it will not impact an election or change political opinions. Obama's critics may deny it. His supporters may exploit it. The cynical may doubt it. Yet, the tale is true and it belongs to us.

It begins with Dr. Joel Hunter, the pastor of Northland Church in Orland, Fla., a man unlikely to be part of a story like Barack Obama's. Hunter was a political conservative who had once been asked to head the Christian Coalition, the advocacy group founded by Pat Robertson. Yet, when Hunter responded publicly and favorably to Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech in 2008, Obama heard of it and sent the pastor a note. "I'd like to catch up with you someday," he said.

A friendship developed. Hunter found himself praying with Obama before a campaign debate and then, later, praying at the Democratic National Convention. When Obama was elected, Hunter also agreed to be on a team of spiritual advisors for the new president. He may not have been entirely aligned with Obama's politics but he knew when he felt God's call and he certainly felt the call to minister to this young leader. Not everyone was pleased. Opposition came. Still, Hunter knew what he was meant to do.

This story, though, is not about Hunter's ministry to Obama. Instead, it centers on Ava, Hunter's granddaughter. In June, 2010, when she was only 5, Ava was diagnosed with a rare form of brain tumor -- glioblastoma multiforme. It is extremely rare in children -- and deadly. Losing Ava became a haunting possibility.

The day after Hunter learned the news, his phone rang. It was the White House operator. "Dr. Hunter, will you stand by for a call from the president."


And then, in a moment, "Joel, this is Barack. I just heard about Ava. I just had to call and tell you that Michelle and I are praying for you. If there is anything we can do we want to do it."

Unable to meet Obama's informality, Hunter replied, "Thank you, Mr. President. That's very kind. We have checked and there is no traditional treatment that has proven effective. We're at a loss. But I appre......."

"No. Stop that." Obama interrupted impatiently. And then, gently, "I really mean it, Joel. Anything I can do I want to do."

Hunter could take no more, and began to weep.

Then began the reversal. The man who had pastored the president now sat silently in tears as the president became, for a few moments, the pastor Hunter needed. "Joel, I want you to remember that God has got you here. He's not going to let you go. He will walk all the way through this with you. You remember this. God isn't going to let go of you. We've got to hold on to our faith in God." This continued for many minutes and then, finally, Obama said, "Please tell your family that Michelle and I are praying for them and our heart goes out to them."

"Thank you, Sir," Hunter said, and the two hung up.

What followed were some of the worst weeks of Joel Hunter's life. His granddaughter underwent a grueling surgery to remove the tumor. There was hope for a season and then the tumor grew back larger than before. On Sept. 4, the little girl died. Hunter was undone.

That same day the phone rang. "Dr. Hunter, will you stand by for a call from the president." The pastor was surprised. He was sure the president could not already know.

"Yes, I will stand by," he told the operator.

Soon, the president came on the line, obviously brokenhearted. "Joel, this is Barack. I've just heard. I'm so sorry. You will be in my prayers. Michelle and I are with you. We are trusting God to go through this with you."

"You are so kind, Mr. President. Thank you. This means a great deal to me."

Then, as before -- as Hunter's words failed him -- the president began to encourage. Again, the bits of scripture and assurances of God's grace. Again, the faith of a president offered to his friend.

Finally, "Your concern touches me, Mr. President. Thank you for calling."

"We are praying for you, Joel," Obama said before hanging up. "I am with you in this. You are not alone."

Hunter was grateful for what had been said, grateful that it helped to lift the pain. He would never forget how a president became, for a moment, a pastor and a grieving pastor could only receive and the lines between the political left and right were dissolved by the greater force of faith.

It will not impact an election or change political opinions, but it is a story we ought to know.

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