Monday, April 13, 2009

Obama celebrates Easter in Episcopal church

President Obama picked the self-described Church of the Presidents, a history-drenched Episcopal church across from the White House, for his first venture to services since he was inaugurated Jan. 20.

The Obamas' Easter visit to St. John's Church doesn't mean they have found a permanent place of worship in the capital.

"The first family has not made a decision yet on which church they will formally join in Washington," spokesman Joshua Dubois said Sunday.

The Obamas have not belonged to a church since about a year ago, when they left Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The departure followed their break with Jeremiah Wright, longtime pastor of the black, socially active church. His controversial statements about AIDS, the 9/11 attacks and Obama himself had threatened to derail Obama's campaign.

FAITH & REASON: Is this welcoming church Obama's new faith home?

St. John's has been part of the U.S. political establishment from its first service in 1816. Since then, the church's website says, "every person who has held the office of president of the United States has attended a regular or occasional service at St. John's."

Pew 54 is the President's Pew, reserved for chief executives. The 1,000-pound bell in the church steeple was cast in 1822 by Paul Revere's son, Joseph.

For Obama, "it's a very safe and traditional choice. It makes perfect sense on Easter Sunday for him to follow in the steps of his predecessors," says Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist who studies presidents and religion.

Two days before Obama was sworn in, he attended a service at the Nineteenth St. Baptist Church, founded in 1839 as the first black church in Washington. Last week, Obama hosted a Passover Seder at the White House.

"This is exactly what a president should be doing — showcasing a broad, open, interdenominational approach. He is ultimately president of all the people," Rozell said.

Shortly before he left Trinity, Obama said his attendance there had become a spectacle, and "I certainly don't want to provide a distraction for those who are worshiping at Trinity."

Last year, he skipped Christmas services while visiting friends and family in Hawaii; spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama didn't want to "disrupt a church community on Christmas with the burdens that come with a presidential visit."

Sunday at St. John's, the Obama family took communion and heard a sermon about the challenges of faith.

"I can't explain Easter to you — it just can't be done," the Rev. Luis Leon said.

"Do not be alarmed if you don't have 100% faith," he said. "Do not be alarmed if you don't understand everything. It takes time to be a believer."

Obama's name came up once, during a prayer led by Robert Black: "Guide and bless us in our work and play and shape the patterns of our political and economic life; we pray for Barack, our president, the leaders of Congress and the Supreme Court and all who are in authority; for Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and the Middle East, that all people may be filled through the bounty of your creation."

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