President-elect Obama hasn’t decided where he and his family will worship in Washington while living in the White House, even though he is being bombarded with invitations from local churches to join their congregation.
Although Obama will attend a private prayer service on Inauguration Day at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, his regular place of worship as president has important religious and moral symbolism.
That’s why the pastor of the equally historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church — just two blocks from the White House — hopes Obama will attend his church after he takes the oath of office.
As Senior Pastor Roger J. Gench told The Hill, his church’s history is interwoven with that of Abraham Lincoln, Obama’s predecessor from Illinois, as well as with Obama’s unique status as the first African-American president. In addition, the local church is deeply involved in community organizing, just as Obama once was on Chicago’s South Side.
President Lincoln frequently attended Sunday service at the church during the Civil War, and some 20 other presidents have worshipped there as well, the Rev. Gench noted. Lincoln also came on weekday evenings for Bible study and discussed his need for divine guidance with his pastor, who presided over the funeral of Lincoln’s son and, later, of Lincoln himself.
In a recent letter to Obama inviting him to join his congregation, the Rev. Gench pointed out that Obama can sit in the same pew that Lincoln once rented, and read on the wall above it his original handwritten draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. “Memories of Lincoln continue to inspire our ministry,” he added.
In fact, the Rev. Gench says he can’t think of a better way for Obama, whose election is seen as the ultimate expression of Lincoln’s call for ending racial inequality, to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth next month than to honor the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church with his presence.
But there are other reasons as well. Gench’s church played an important role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s that paved the way for Obama, with Dr. Martin Luther King — whose birthday is the day before Obama’s Inauguration — preaching his doctrine of nonviolent protest from its pulpit.
“We have a diverse membership that represents a range of political opinion as well as racial and socioeconomic diversity,” the Rev. Gench said. “Our education program for kindergartners through adults reflects that diversity.”
And even though Obama is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago, the Rev. Gench pointed out that it and the Presbyterian Church (USA) “share a common theological heritage as heirs of the Reformed Tradition.”
Finally, it was at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1954 where another pastor preached a Lincoln Day sermon before a congregation that included President Eisenhower, which prompted Congress to amend the Pledge of Allegiance by inserting the words “under God” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
But wherever Obama decides to worship as president, the Rev. Gench wants him to know that “we will continue to hold you in our prayers, with deep gratitude for your public service to our nation.”