WASHINGTON, D.C. – Frederick Douglass once worshiped in the fifth pew on the 16th Street side of Metropolitan AME Church.
President Bill Clinton prayed in the front pew before both of his inaugurations.
Come January, members hope President-elect Barack Obama and his family pick a pew at the historic black church located within walking distance of the White House.
“When our forefathers established this church, it was intentionally placed six blocks from the White House, close to the seat of power,” says Tony Hawkins, a member since 1991.
“We would expect him to pay us a visit some time in the next four to eight years,” he says of Obama. “If he decided to make us his church in the city, we would be honored.”
Metropolitan AME is not the only congregation willing to roll out the red carpet – and metal detectors – for the First Family and its entourage.
The choir at Shiloh Baptist Church has already begun arranging hymns for a January worship service marking Obama’s inauguration and the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
And the United Church of Christ has invited Obama to shop for a church within the denomination he has called home for more than 20 years.
Across town from the White House, the Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, is taking a more laid-back approach.
“From our perspective, there’s enough pressure on President-elect Obama and his family at this point,” he says. “What they really need … is the luxury and leisure of making that decision on their own.”
But following the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ – where Obama became a Christian more than 20 years ago – the new president’s anticipated choice of a spiritual haven in Washington is a public affair, whether he likes it or not.
Experts say Obama must find a pastor who supports and challenges him, but also inspires a broad swath of the American population.
He must seek a church that not only reflects the principles of his administration but also helps shape the religious and cultural values of his young daughters. He also must search for a place where he feels comfortable communing with God.
“Your spirituality is a personal thing,” says Thomas Dixon Tyler of Shiloh Baptist Church. “While he’s battling forces of evil around the world, he needs an opportunity to connect with his spiritual adviser … go inside himself and renew himself and look at how his actions impact the world around him.”
Some Washington faithful are looking to Obama to renew the inner-city church and the causes it has historically championed. As affluent churches move to the suburbs and gentrification alters the neighborhoods of those that remain, the power and presence of the inner city’s houses of worship have faded.
Tyler says Obama’s choice could awaken a dormant spirit in the city. The man who wants to renew America could remind churches of their mission to create a new humanity, he says.
It also would turn the spotlight on another pulpit. Earlier this year, Chicago’s Trinity came under attack after snippets of Wright’s sermons surfaced on the Internet showing him at the pulpit shouting, “God damn America!”
Obama initially defended Wright, but when the controversy began overshadowing his campaign, he announced he was leaving the church.
The Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of Howard University’s chapel, says pastors should not feel compelled to soften their message, even with the new president in their pews.
“I would think there may be tension but there ought not to be a concern,” Richardson says.
Citing a phrase from King, he adds: “It ought to be a creative tension. Ministers have to be aware of the possibilities. Hopefully it will cause them to be sure they don’t stifle the message.”
Hagler says he has no intention of kowtowing to scrutiny.
“Worship should challenge folks to grow,” says the pastor of Plymouth Congregational, whose salt-and-pepper beard and mane have not been trimmed since Bush was re-elected – a challenge from his congregation. He will shave on the day of Obama’s inauguration.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of political science and African-American studies at Princeton University, predicts the Obama family will search for someone who preaches more straightforward lessons.
Trinity’s Afrocentric value system and Wright’s provocative sermons did not translate well, even for many in the black churches, she says, although she expects the Obamas will stay within the UCC.
If they do, Hagler would be happy to have them.
“One of the things I would work toward would be ensuring the family has peace and a place where they can actually worship and that’s less of a fishbowl than other places in their lives will be,” he says.