Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Attending Church in Washington, D.C.: Choices for the Obamas

Ever since then-Senator (now President-Elect) Barack Obama was forced painfully to quit Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago  the “where now?” question has blossomed.   Trinity Ucc was the congregation where he found Christ’s salvation and was baptized, where he and Michelle were wed and the girls baptized.   He was forced to quit his membership because of the controversy surrounding remarks by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Since then, there has been much speculation about where the Obamas will attend church when the move to Washington, D.C. (I still think that Wright’s remarks, while inflammatory and unwise, were taken out of context. I have heard him preach and this was a manufactured controversy designed to make Obama seem “radical” and unpatriotic. Any of us who have preached on an even irregular basis can think of ways that snippets of sermons could be used against us.  Rightwing white preachers have said things at least as harsh as “God damn America!,” and the Republican politicians who follow them have paid very little price. The late Francis A. Schaeffer, for instance, one of the architects of the Religious Right, wrote books saying that if America continued to keep abortion legal and other policies with which he disapproved, it might be time for a second American revolution!  Jerry Falwell initially seemed to give his blessings to those who bombed abortion clinics, though later he revoked that blessing, and defended apartheid era South Africa, calling Archbishop Desmond Tutu a Communist. Hundreds of Republican politicians attended Falwell’s funeral services.  There is a double-standard because whites do not usually understand the Black Church.)

Several print publications and the PBS show, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, have given virtual tours of D.C. churches for the Obamas.  I’ll play the same game because I need something upbeat to discuss, not just the gloomy economy (including the class warfare) or corrupt politicians.  And I find myself with little in the way of new Advent meditations this year, and I don’t just want to repeat last year’s.  What would be the criteria for the Obama family in finding a D.C. church home?  I don’t know, but here are some of my guesses:

1) I think they will want a congregation that is at least multi-racial/multi-cultural if not predominantly African-American.  A mostly white congregation would probably be alien to them.

2) They may want to stick with the United Church of Christ denomination, although denominational loyalty is waning, especially among those who are adult converts to Christianity, like the President-Elect.  There are 18 UCC congregations in the area.  Like the denomination at large, most of these are predominantly white, but I will highlight some which are not.  I expect that the Obamas will remain Protestants, even if they sometimes visit a Catholic or Orthodox parish.

3) They will want a pastor who is less controversial than Rev. Wright. I fear this will turn into a search for a pastor who “tames” the gospel from its prophetic dimensions, especially when these intersect politics. This is unfortunate since no one in this country needs the prophetic confrontation of an Amos or a Micah, etc. more than the U.S. president.  Yet, because of the controversy around Rev. Wright, it is inevitable that the press and the U.S. rightwing will heavily scrutinize the sermons and activities of whatever congregation the Obamas visit.   I would pick a church without televised services, but this would not stop people with cell-phone cameras.4) Like all parents, the Obamas will want to choose a congregation with strong programs for their children–and not just in Sunday School.  The Obamas have also shown a marked preference for lively church music that might not be found in some “high liturgical” traditions.

5) They have expressed a desire to be involved in a congregation that is making an active difference in its surrounding neighborhood as well as beyond. So, they will look at outreach, social ministry, and mission programs.

6) Security is a concern. Whatever church is chosen must prepare to deal with Secret Service, possible searches,  and the President may have to leave abruptly if an emergency arises.

With these criteria in mind, here is my unscientific survey of available options, with pros and cons–not that they are likely to need my advice.

I. Starting with the United Church of Christ options:

  • First Congregational United Church of Christ, 309 E Street NW, Washington, D.C.  Founded in 1865 by abolitionists just as the Civil War drew near, this is an interracial, multicultural congregation.  It was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  It is a very progressive church that has declared itself to be part of the Just Peace congregation program of the UCC and an Open and Affirming congregation (i.e., it fully welcomes GLBT persons).  One “minus” is that the congregation is currently building a new multi-purpose facility in place of its old, run-down facility and, until that is finished in 2010, meets at First Trinity Lutheran Church (corner of 4th and E streets), which may be awkward–2 congregations under one roof may be crowded enough without a presidential entourage, too.  On the plus side, the congregation has a long history with Howard University and its Divinity School.  More of the congregation is white than any other ethnic group, but the Rev. Doug Clark, pastor, professes the kind of progressive faith that Obama has articulated (he may even be more theologically liberal than Obama) but preaches in a much less confrontational or inflammatory style than Rev. Wright.
  • Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ , 1701 11th Street NW, is the oldest African-American church in the Congregational tradition in the District of Columbia, founded by freedmen and freedwomen after the Civil War.  It is theologically progressive and socially active for justice. It is a Just Peace congregation, Open and Affirming, and part of the “God is Still Speaking” movement in the UCC.   The pastor, Rev. Nathan A. Harris, has a much different style of preaching than Rev. Wright–but Wright did preach his installation service and some would try to use that against the congregation or the Obamas.  The congregation is smaller than the Obamas are used to, but it is growing under Rev. Harris’  leadership. It wants to celebrate African-American heritage, but reach out in multicultural directions.  The pew Bibles have been changed from the old KJV to NRSV (which uses inclusive language for human beings) and they now use the African American Heritage Hymnal. On the plus side, Rev. Harris would have much to discuss with the Obamas–his undergraduate work was in business and public administration and, in addition to a Master of Divinity from Duke University Divinity School, Harris has a law degree, the Doctor of Jurisprudence, from Howard University School of Law.  Both the Obamas are lawyers and Michelle has been heavily involved with administrative work at the University of Chicago. I think having a spiritual leader who has background and experience in more than just theology would prove very helpful to them.  I cannot find anything especially about its children or youth programs.
  • The United Church, 1920 G Street NW (the “Foggy Bottom” area of the State Department) is dually affiliated with the UCC and the United Methodist Church, a merger of 2 congregations that, in one form or another, have ministered in this area for 170 years.  The UCC part of the tradition is from the German Reformed heritage rather than the Congregational heritage. (The UCC is a merger of many Protestant traditions.) Once this area was the center of ethnic Germans, but nothing remains much of that earlier period of this neighborhood.  Still, there remains a German-language ministry in the congregation.  The educational activities of the church include a “science and religion forum” that the Obamas would probably appreciate.  It’s State Department location makes it easy to meet security concerns.  The major drawback is that this is a mostly white congregation with a very “high church” worship pattern. I know the “German Reformed” type of UCC congregation since my wife, a Baptist minister with ministerial recognition by the UCC, was once an interim pastor in one. The worship style is EXTREMELY formal and cerebral and the Obama children would probably be especially bored and restless.  On the other hand, the pastor, Rev. Peter DeGroote, also has a varied educational background (an M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C., an M.A. in government from American University and a certificate in advanced study in social studies from Syracuse) and experience in business, the U.S. Army, public school teaching, and lecturing at American University.  Again, I think the Obamas would appreciate a pastor who has a wide range of educational and work/life experiences, rather than only theological training.
  • Cleveland Park Congregational United Church of Christ, 3400 Lowell Street NW, is mostly white. However, it has 2 pastors, Rev. Ken Fuller and Rev. Laura Jean Thompson, and the progressive Obamas may want strongly for their daughters to see an ordained woman often.  This is an Open and Affirming congregation and part of the God is Still Speaking movement, but not a Just Peace congregation.  The Sunday School program for children and for high school students is strong and the confirmation program, too.  The music is more lively than what one would likely encounter at The United Church (above), but would lack the rich gospel music of the African-American heritage.  The social programs are good for a church of this small size.
  • People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, 4704 13th Street NW, is a multi-cultural church of predominantly (but far from exclusively) African-American membership.  It is Open and Affirming.  The programs for children and youth are very strong, including Brownies and Girl Scouts.  The music is very good.  Rev. Rubin Tendai is a certified Intentional Interim Minister–which means that the Obamas cannot know if the tone will change significantly when a new pastor is called.  It would be hard on them to “settle in” and then find a new pastor draws the kind of controversy of a Rev. Wright and be faced with either weathering that storm or uprooting the family to a new spiritual home, again. (Many of Obama’s critics for his sticking with Trinity UCC–the sincere ones and not just those manufacturing trouble–seem to think it easy to change church homes. It is not–especially if one has children. It’s not like joining a social club!) Rev. Leslie Dowdell-Cannon, the Senior Associate Minister, is another ordained woman–and one with ties to Chicago.  The community outreach programs include operating a Federal Credit Union for Neighborhood development through micro-credit.
  • Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, 5301 North Capitol Street, NW, is a mostly African-American congregation. I know this church and its Pastor, Rev. Graylan Haglar, some from my days as Outreach Coordinator of Every Church a Peace Church.  Rev. Haglar has been heavily involved in church-based work for racial and economic justice and was one of the strongest voices against the Iraq War.  With his long, grey beard and fiery sermons, however, it would be easy for Obama enemies to paint him with the same brush as they did Rev. Wright. Plymouth is a small congregation in a very poor neighborhood.  There is a female Associate Minister (Rev. Rebecca West, herself a powerful voice for Christ-based justice and peace work). I do not have any information about the programs for youth and children.  Security could be a problem as I can easily visualize a presidential vehicle in the parking lot attracting trouble. On the other hand, seeing the U.S. President (who looks like them) attend church in their neighborhood, could be a very important influence on neighborhood children and youth!

The other United Church of Christ congregations in the D.C. area are in Arlington and Bethesda and are mostly upscale and white.

II.  Other Possibilities Among Protestant Churches in the D.C. area:

  • Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1518 M Street NW.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) is a branch of Methodism–and the first denomination founded by African Americans in America.  It was founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1787 because of unequal treatment by the (white) Methodists of that day.  The AME has been a strong force for racial justice throughout the history of the United States:  Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Bishop Henry McNeil Turner were all 19th C. stalwarts of the AME Church.  In the 20th C., the AME’s members have included Rosa Parks, the Black Liberation theologians James Cone and Cecil Cone and the Womanist theologian, Jacqueline Grant.  Theologically and structurally, one can see that the AME is a branch of Methodism–and may even be more traditionally Wesleyan than some parts of the current United Methodist Church.  Metropolitan is considered the “national cathedral” of the AME.  I have met there many times when my social activism has brought me to D.C. because it often lends its facilities to groups promoting peace and justice–especially those that are faith based.  Metropolitan was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the great African American Frederick Douglass (featured in a stained glass window) would sometimes preach from its pulpit.  It’s current pastor is Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, about whom I know little.  Though Metropolitan is still a center of progressive causes, it would be harder for the Right to criticize it than they did Trinity–simply because all of Black America would likely react the way Catholics would at criticism of the Vatican!  There are 10 other AME congregations in the D.C. area, but they don’t have websites that I could find and I don’t know enough about any of them to comment further, except to say that a few of them have female senior pastors.
  • It’s possible that the Obamas would want to go in a completely different direction than what they knew at Trinity.  They could opt for something “established” (read “safe”), no matter how alien to African-American Christian traditions.  I hope not and I am afraid that I would probably interpret this as an unfortunate political trumping of faith, but there are many options if they go this route.  The most obvious is St. John’s Church (Episcopal), 1528 H Street, NW:  founded in 1815 specifically to give presidents a place to worship. Every president since James Madison (4th U.S. President) has worshipped here at least once.  However, St. John’s Church today is considerably more multicultural than historically and the current Rector, Rev. Luis Leon is Latino and offers a 2nd service in Spanish. (The Obamas have expressed a hope that their daughters become bilingual, fluent in Spanish as well as English. Nothing helps fluency like trying to follow a service in the second language, trust me.)   Positives: It is located just across Lafayette Park–walking distance from the White House. It has strong programs for children and youth.  It has a long history of dealing with the special needs (e.g., abrupt leaving, Secret Service details, etc.) of presidential parishioners.  People from all walks of D.C. life, from the powerful to the homeless, attend St. John’s Church, which keeps from the “out of touch bubble” that is a problem for presidents.
  • Another establishment congregation is National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave., NW, regularly attended by Congressfolk, cabinet members (current Secretary of State, Condaleeza Rice, a cradle Presbyterian, worships here regularly) and Supreme Court justices.  The children’s program has over 400 kids.  However, let’s face it, National Pres. is pretty upscale and white (with a few exceptions like Condi Rice).
  • National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 5 Thomas Circle, NW, was the congregational home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D), and even has a stained glass window dedicated to Johnson highlighting the creation of Medicare and the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. It was also the congregational home of Pres. James A. Garfield (R), a DoC minister and the only ordained minister ever to be elected to the U.S. presidency.  The Disciples of Christ are a partner denomination to the United Church of Christ.  The Obamas would probably find much in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation that was familiar, with the exceptions of weekly communion (eucharist, Lord’s Supper) and the practice of believers’  baptism. But the congregational structure, focus on covenantal discipleship rather than creeds, and generally liberal theology (varying from congregation to congregation) would all be conducive.  National City Christian Church (DoC), is the oldest DoC congregation in the District, dating to 1843.  It has a Spanish language congregation and is multi-racial and multi-cultural. It is also very close to the White House.  The current Senior Pastor is Rev. Dr. Stephen Gentle, once a faculty member at a multi-denominational seminary in South Florida.  The Minister to the Hispanic Community (Rev. Neomi Mena) and the Assistant Minister (Rev. Beverly Goines) are both women and Rev. Goines is African-American.  The congregation has numerous outreach ministries that work with progressive causes (and more of a budget for such than some smaller churches–pluses and minuses), but the style is not so confrontational as to attract the kind of “heat” that Obama faced with Rev. Wright (one hopes–I believe the Rightwing will stop at nothing to smear Obama and try to make him ineffective).
  • Another Disciples of Christ possibility for the Obamas would be Michigan Park Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 1600 Taylor Street, NE.  This is a predominantly African-American congregation near Howard University (a historic black university, founded when segregation ruled U.S. higher education) and the pastor, Rev. Dr. Delores C. Carpenter, teaches at Howard’s Divinity School as Professor of Religious Education.  More conservative theologically than many Disciples’ congregations, it is still very progressive in its social justice work and works of compassion.  There is also a strong note at Michigan Park about developing deep habits of spiritual discipline–something any president could use, faced with the trials and tribulations that are sure to beset him and his family.
  • One commenter asks about D. C.’s famous Church of the Savior, a non-denominational church founded by former-Baptist Gordon Cosby.  C of the S is famous for it’s small group formation, it’s intense discipleship programs (one has to be deeply involved and committed before one is accepted, over time, for membership), and for keeping the connections between spirituality and social action strong.  I have ties to many C of the S folk from my days with Every Church a Peace Church, but it presents numerous difficulties for a presidential family:  Foremost is that the C of the S is organized into several small covenantal congregations scattered in storefronts across the District.  None of these congregations could easily accomodate a presidential motorcade, Secret Service, etc.  The informal nature of worship at most of these congregations, which makes them inviting to the poor, would be disrupted by a presidential presence.  I think many of the Gordon Cosby approaches of C of the S would be good for the Obamas–but I am not sure they would be good for the Church of the Savior–not while in office, at any rate.
  • Despite a primary campaign in which he repeatedly said that returning to the Clinton ’90s wasn’t good enough for the challenges of our day, Obama has incorporated not only Hillary Clinton, but numerous Clintonistas in his new cabinet and advisors.  Michelle followed her advice about schools and the girls have enrolled in Sidwell Friends School (a Quaker institution), like Chelsea Clinton before them.  So, maybe the Obamas would consider worshipping where the Clintons worshipped when in the White House–Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th Street NW.  This is one of the most famous of  UMC churches from the progressive wing of the UMC.  The Clintons’ former pastor (and one of my friends from the Society of Christian Ethics), Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, is no longer there. The current pastor, Rev. Dr. Dean Snyder, is a bridgebuilder between liberal and evangelical Christians–something Obama himself has attempted.  It’s a mile north of the White House, has large childrens and youth programs and lots of social outreach–and the music incorporates both “Euro-American” Latino, and African-American styles.  The congregation is very diverse and it was one of the first UMC congregations to become a “Reconciling Congregation” (the United Methodist term for full inclusion of LGBT persons, similar to the UCC or Disciples’ “Open and Affirming” or the Baptist “Welcoming and Affirming”).
  • Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School weekly at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.  Baptists are notoriously divided into numerous denominations (as I should know). FBC, Washington has attempted, among other things, to bridge these divides. It is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. (the smallest of the historically Black Baptist groups), and the Alliance of Baptists.  The Interim Senior Pastor is Rev. Deborah Cochran, who has been a Southern Baptist missionary.  FBC also houses the Spanish-speaking, Church of the Good News of Salvation.
  • The Obamas are not unfamiliar with Baptists (he correctly has noted that Baptists used to be the champions of church/state separation while his own tradition, the Congregationalist, supported state-supported denominations. Now those traditions have largely reversed themselves.), but have most experience with African-American Baptists.  If they consider a Baptist experience, they might do best with Calvary Baptist Church, 755 8th Street, NW.  Calvary is affiliated with the American Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the Alliance of Baptists.  It is an ecumenical, multi-racial, multicultural Christian body.  Its pastor, Rev. Amy Butler, has written to the Obamas and invited them to attend and see if they would be a good spiritual home.  The congregation has a Hispanic and a Burmese ministry.  They are a Welcoming and Affirming congregation (indeed, have specifically advertised in the D.C. area Washington Blade, a publication of the LGBTQ community) and a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (Rev. Edgar Palacios and his late spouse Amara have been especially strong peacemakers–not only with BPFNA, but with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and with Every Church a Peace Church–as I have reason to know).  Since Obama is the most tech-savvy president we’ve ever had, he’d probably appreciate Rev. Amy Butler’s blog.

Those are just a few of the many church opportunities in the Metro D.C. area.  I hope the Obamas find a good church home (and that the press leaves them alone there) during their 8 or possibly 4 years in the District of Columbia.

December 15, 2008 - Posted by | Christianity, church


  1. I’ve been to most of these, and though I’ve not been to Lincoln, from all I’ve heard it would be the best option ’cause it’s big enough to take the stress of having a president show up from time to time.

    Calvary might work, but I have a selfish reason for it not becoming the president’s church.

    Comment by Scott Wells (Boy in the Bands | December 15, 2008

  2. What about The Church of the Savior?

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | December 15, 2008

  3. You should apply to be his spiritual advisor. The application’s kind of pain though.

    Comment by Gene | December 15, 2008

  4. Michael,

    Of course, I would suggest that he and the family join National City Christian Church. As you noted, the DOC’s are in partnership with UCC’s and two Presidents have been members already. We’d love to have them.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | December 15, 2008

  5. Reverend Wright’s comments were inflamatory and ill advised for a man of the cloth. BHO should go to any church that suits him and his family.

    Comment by Paul | December 16, 2008

  6. This is very interesting and thorough.
    My two suggestions would be:
    Metropolitan African Methodist AME Church, founded by Richard Allen,
    St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is affiliated with St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, founded by Absalom Jones.
    The walkout these men held when told by the vestry members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (in Philly) they had to sit in the back of the balcony is considered the first event in the civil rights movement,
    so there is significant history there, and Both churches seem dynamic and multi-cultural.

    Comment by Betsey Farlow | December 16, 2008

  7. Might I suggest: St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, my old congregation? They are very progressive, and attending a small little church in the shadow of the cathedral is kind of a trip. 🙂

    PS: I think the media should butt out of this question. But they don’t listen to me.

    Comment by dcrowe | December 16, 2008

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