WASHINGTON — The East Capitol Street Church of Christ meets just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol — the site of a swearing-in ceremony that most members never thought they’d live to see.
“It means so much to me to see an African-American man become president of the United States,” said Bernice Watts, who attends the predominantly black church with her husband, James.
Emma Moten, 68, has worshiped with the 160-member congregation since the days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
“I hoped for this day, but I never thought that I would see it,” Moten said of Barack Obama’s inauguration. “This means that God is on the throne.”
Many East Capitol Street members made their way to the National Mall as Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president. Some served as police officers and civil servants as the first black president gave his inaugural address. Other members, including Leibert Walters, just wanted to be a part of history.
“I want to tell people I was there,” said Walters, a native of Jamaica who served as a minister and then elder of the East Capitol Street church for more than 30 years. “How can you be in D.C. … and not want to be part of all of this?”
Daniel Lester, minister of the East Capitol Street church, referenced Obama’s election as he preached from 2 Timothy 1 before the inauguration.
“For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, one of love and of a sound mind,” Lester said in a Jan. 11 sermon. “God has spoken as far as I am concerned, and he has spoken in the hearts of the people who elected Barack Obama.” ELATION HERE, CONCERN THERE
Across the nation, excitement over Obama’s inauguration was palpable in America’s nearly 1,200 predominantly black Churches of Christ. Nationally, about 95 percent of black Americans voted for Obama.
Tyrone Allen, a black educator and member of the Rockville, Md., church, about 30 miles north of Washington, said he and his wife are Republicans. But they voted for Obama out of concern about “the moral decay in America.” They saw Obama as “a man that God has his hand on.”
“We were impressed not only because he was black, but because of how he conducted himself,” Allen said. “That was the thing that won our hearts.”
At the recent annual lectureship of Southwestern Christian College, a historically black college in Terrell, Texas, one speaker’s reference to the “hand of God” in Obama’s election drew enthusiastic approval.
But not everyone shared the post-election elation felt in black congregations.
In recent presidential elections, a majority of conservative Christians — including Church of Christ members — have voted Republican because of that party’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, according to national surveys.
That trend continued in the 2008 election, with roughly three-fourths of evangelical voters supporting Republican John McCain, pollsters reported.
“Generally speaking, our members are not excited about Obama having won the election,” said Charlie Harrison, who is white and minister of the Brunswick, Maine, church. “But we continue to follow God’s directive to pray for those in leadership regardless of who they are. … God knows what he is doing when he puts someone in power.”
Shaun Casey, the evangelical coordinator for the Obama campaign, said many white members “bought the line during the Bush years that he was an evangelical true believer and that to be a Christian one had to vote for a Republican like him.
“Eight years later, that is a tough proposition to defend, and to vote for Obama means re-evaluating something that had become almost Scriptural in its authority in many of our churches,” Casey said. THE RACIAL DIMENSION
Casey is a member of the Fairfax, Va., church, a suburban Washington congregation that is about 15 percent black. While Casey’s black brothers and sisters are “ecstatic” over Obama’s inauguration, and a number of white members are too, he said, “the majority are walking around in stunned silence.”
Reasons for many white members’ coolness toward Obama range from political concerns to a “racial dimension that we should not deny,” said Casey, who teaches Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
“Some members flat out told me they could not vote for a black man,” he said. “That was not common, but it did happen. Usually, when I encountered what I concluded were racial attitudes among white brethren, they tended to be vague expressions of discomfort or statements like ‘I don’t really know who he is.’”
But Tim Spivey, minister of the North County church in Escondido, Calif., said he believes white members’ concerns about Obama had less to do with race and more to do “with significant policy differences that some view as being at the heart of morality itself.”
“I would imagine that many Christians would have preferred a conservative black president,” said Spivey, who questioned whether black members would have voted for a white candidate with Obama’s same views.
“I for one, am happy that we have an African-American president,” the white minister added. “ “It’s long overdue. And, while I don’t agree with most of Obama’s policies, I’m willing to give him a chance because I really want to see him succeed.”
James Snow, minister and elder at Detroit’s Redford church, a 330-member congregation that is 90 percent black, offered a different perspective.
“He represents change. He is very intelligent. He has charisma. He has the ability to motivate and inspire people, and he seems to have the interest of all Americans at heart,” Snow said of Obama. “If you take away the fact that he is black, all of the aforementioned qualities suggest that he could be a great president like John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. If not, why not?”
Steve McCall, who is white and preaches at the Desert church in Kingman, Ariz., said it pains him to hear white church members make less than complimentary remarks about Obama.
“That does not reflect the love of God,” McCall said. “I know that God is control, and all we can do is trust him no matter who goes into office. We also need to remember that no man has power or authority unless God gave it to him.” ‘A CROWNING MOMENT’
Church members who voted for Obama told The Christian Chronicle
that issues including social justice, health care and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan influenced their decisions.
Several members also noted that the election of a black man to the nation’s highest office demonstrates progress in racial equality.
“For so long we have taught (minority children) that you can be anything that you want to be,” said Charlene Adams, a special education teacher and member of the University Park church in Hyattsville, Md., a Washington suburb. “But now that we have a black president, kids now can believe that they can be anything. Now they have something concrete.”
Obama’s election “removes the shroud of hypocrisy that we have been living under for many years,” said Carl Wamble, a retired commander in the U.S. Navy and a former elder of the East Capitol Street church.
“We have repeated statements like ‘One nation under God’ and ‘All men are created equal’ for a long time,” Wamble said. “But we have not lived out the true meaning of this creed. This is really a crowning moment in our country in really being the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Patriotic slogans aside, Walters said he simply hopes the new president will help erase long-held stereotypes and prejudices. “The day after he won the election I was the proudest man,” Walters said. “I said, ‘Maybe ladies might not hold their pocket books so tight when I pass.’”
Walters expressed the sentiments privately expressed by many African-Americans who believe that, despite their education and backgrounds, some doors are simply not open to them.
The church Walters attends on East Capitol Street is connected — albeit tangentially — to presidential history. Before the church moved to its current building in 1962, its members met near the intersection of 13th and Irving streets — in a facility that once served as a Quaker meeting house and the church home of Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president.
In 1901, Roosevelt invited renowned educator and orator Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, said Edward J. Robinson, minister for the North Tenth and Treadaway church in Abilene, Texas, and an authority on ethnicity and religion in America.
Many white Southerners, including a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, voiced outrage at the notion of a black man dining in the White House.
“For the next four years, a black family will be living in the White House,” Robinson said. “That’s powerful.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Bobby Ross Jr. and Erik Tryggestad.