Obamas' Church Hunt Layered With Sensitivities President Obama and his family are reportedly searching for a new church home in Washington, D.C. Many of the area's faithful are watching closely, while others hold out hope that perhaps the Obamas will choose to worship with their congregation. Two Washington-area religious leaders explain the sensitivities of church hunting, and why the First Family's search is uniquely complex.
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Obamas' Church Hunt Layered With Sensitivities

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Obamas' Church Hunt Layered With Sensitivities

Obamas' Church Hunt Layered With Sensitivities

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys take on politics, sports, and the presidential dog. But first, our regular Faith Matters conversation. That's the part in the show where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Easter was celebrated last Sunday by many Americans, it's this weekend for others. And if you went to church last weekend, you probably found the pews a little more crowded than usual, with visiting family and visitors coming to check things out. Now, finding a church in a new town can be a sensitive matter and it's usually a private matter.

But when you're president of the United States, nothing is private. And as President Obama and his family continue to search for a church home, the search raises interesting questions for a city and a family and an administration. So we decided to talk more about this. I'm joined here in our Washington, D.C. studio by two pastors who lead prominent churches here in the nation's capital. The Reverend Dean Snyder is the senior minister at Foundry United Methodist Church. That's the church the Clinton's attended while they were in the White House. And the Reverend Michael Murphy is senior pastor of People's Congregational United Church of Christ. It's one of the churches the Obamas are said to be considering. Welcome, thank you both for coming.

Rev. MICHAEL MURPHY (Senior Pastor, People's Congregational United Church of Christ): Good to be here, Michel.

Rev. DEAN SNYDER (Senior Minister, Foundry United Methodist Church): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Reverend Murphy you're actually a newbie yourself.

Rev MURPHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: You just joined People's two months ago, after a long time pastor, the Reverend Dr. A. Knighton Stanley retired. We hear that the president might be considering your church. Is that a little nerve-wracking when you're new yourself?

Rev MURPHY: Well, first of all, I am new to the Washington, D.C. area, been here about two months. And People's Congregation of the United Church of Christ where A. Knighton Stanley served for 38 years has a distinguished legacy in history. It was founded in 1891. It's very active, very diverse, very family oriented church. And…

MARTIN: Do I hear little selling going on here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev MURPHY: Well, I am here to say something about People's Church in and to just share what I see, you know, what brought me here to Washington, D.C. to pastor this historic church in the United Church of Christ.

MARTIN: We hear it reported that the family is sending emissaries to various churches around town to keep the search on the low key, without creating the sort of all the drama that comes with the family visiting themselves. Do you think that that's so? Have you heard this?

Rev MURPHY: Well I haven't heard officially from anyone with the administration, however, People's Church has been mentioned with other churches. And so, through our general minister of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, an invitation has been extended to the President and his family. He comes out of the United Church of Christ and our general minister wanted him and his family to know that they're welcome to look at any of the United Church of Christ churches in the Washington, D.C. area.

Certainly People's is the largest in the central Atlantic conference. And so, we extend invitation for him and his family to visit at any time.

MARTIN: And Reverend Dean, of course, you were not the senior pastor at Foundry at the time that the Clintons were worshipping there, Phil Wogaman was, but you were at the conference, you're working with the Bishop. So you know very well the impact that the Clintons had on the congregation. I would imagine that there are pluses and minuses.

Rev. SNYDER: There are pluses and minuses. Foundry Church had lot of respect for the Clintons, in large part because it was so obvious that they wanted to raise their daughter within the context of the faith tradition. And they made sure that they were in church, so that she could be in church. She was very active in the youth group, very active in the youth choir, participated in the youth mission trips. And so, high respect and a sense of being able to support a family that's under enormous scrutiny and pressure.

It is possible for it to become a bit of a distraction from the normal functioning of building community within a congregation, however.

MARTIN: Why is that? Is it because you think there are kind of looky-loos who are coming just to gaze upon them?

Rev. SNYDER: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: Or the security, the demonstrators? I know there are demonstrators outside of Foundry just about every Sunday.

Rev. SNYDER: Yeah, some of our members talk, especially parents talk about having to bring their kids past sometimes grotesque demonstrations, anti-abortion demonstrations, anti-gay demonstrations. We're of course a church that welcomes gay and lesbian people and so that was a cause of demonstration. So some of our families say some, that they don't miss that. But mostly people felt good to be part of supporting the first family and to be the first family's congregation and to have an investment in the president's leadership of the country, to be the, the first family's spiritual home.

MARTIN: And Reverend Murphy, one of the tricky things of course, is that Mr. Obama's campaign was threatened by the controversy around his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and his sermons, not his community activism, but his sermons. So one of the concerns I was wondering if you had, and I wondered if other ministers in the city have, is whether their ministry will suddenly become so scrutinized, as if they themselves are political figures?

Rev. MURPHY: Well, I think most ministers value freedom of the pulpit. And that has been a longstanding tradition that I think will continue. And it's something that you can't measure one minister over another. Certainly each ministry is unique. For instance, my ministry focuses not just on the prophetic, but also the priestly and the pastoral. And so, meeting people's spiritual needs, as well as speaking truth to power in the prophetic tradition.

MARTIN: But, if the President comes to your church and his family, he is a person for whom you need to offer pastoral care.

Rev. MURPHY: Yes.

MARTIN: But he's also the power.

Rev. MURPHY: Yes.

MARTIN: He is the power to whom you are dedicated to speaking truth.

Rev. MURPHY: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: So how do you balance that?

Rev. MURPHY: Well, having served in public life myself, I served in the Michigan legislature and I served as a pastor, so I know the sensitivity of politics and, you know, the criticisms of policies and finding a balance. But also providing the type of pastoral care and spiritual nurturing that I think everyone who comes to the church needs in developing their faith and the concern for their families.

MARTIN: But can you envision yourself pulling your punches if you felt something would be personally painful to him?

Rev. MURPHY: Pulling my punches?

MARTIN: Pulling your punches in the pulpit.

Rev. MURPHY: Well…

MARTIN: I'm saying if there was something - if you disagree profoundly with a decision that he was making. I remember for the Clintons, for example, when the President signed welfare reform, there were people who resigned in protest from his administration. There were many people in the clergy community around the country who thought that the policies were…

Rev. MURPHY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …punitive and unfair.

Rev. MURPHY: Well I believe there's some things you preach from the pulpit that's for everybody, there's some things you say in private that's for the individual. And so, again, it's a matter of balance, it's a matter of discretion and it's a matter of ministering to the needs of the congregation, as well as to the individual.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're talking about the challenge of the Obama family in finding a church home and the challenge for churches in welcoming the Obamas. And we're speaking with Washington, D.C. faith leaders, the Reverend Michael Murphy and the Reverend Dean Snyder. Reverend Dean, of course there is also race. Race is a part of this.

Rev. SNYDER: Yes.

MARTIN: People like it or not.

Rev. SNYDER: It's become more complicated, hasn't it?

MARTIN: Yeah. But why do you say that?

Rev. SNYDER: Well because having a African-American president sort of changes the assumption, the racial divide between churches is changing, congregations are integrating. A lot of questions I think, about, among African-Americans who attend my church sometimes need to deal with the question of why aren't you part of an African-American church? Why going to a church that's still - we're, on an average Sunday, we're somewhere between 75 percent and 80 percent of our congregation is white.

Maybe a quarter is people of color and as we become a more inclusive society, which I assume the election of President Obama indicates some movement in that direction, what happens to churches that have traditionally divided along ethnic and cultural lines? I think it's a very interesting time, but in some ways also unsettling within the Protestant church community, especially.

MARTIN: Rev. Murphy, what do you think about how race plays out in this discussion? Your congregation is predominantly African-American, although not exclusively.

Rev. MURPHY: Right. It's predominantly African-American.

MARTIN: But isn't that part of the reason some people go?

Rev. MURPHY: Well I think nowadays, people are looking for a place where they can grow spiritually. They're looking for a church, a faith community that meets their needs, whether, you know, in terms of music, in terms of preaching, in terms of the ministry…

MARTIN: Okay, but part of the need for some people, of African-Americans particularly, I feel like I can say this, middle class ones, is they want their kids to be sort of nurtured in a way that affirms them ethnically.

Rev. MURPHY: Hmm, hmm. Well and I…

MARTIN: That's part of it, isn't it?

Rev. MURPHY: I agree with you, Michel. There are cultural dimensions in faith communities, whether it's the music, whether it's the preaching, whether it's the ministries. And certainly identity formation, especially for young people, takes place within the context of the church. And so to nurture children in the faith, in the particular cultural context that people are drawn, African-Americans are drawn to faith communities that have those cultural characteristics.

MARTIN: And sometimes, people in the majority don't understand that or feel that that's wrong. They're like, what's your problem, you know?

Rev. MURPHY: And there's a history, there's a tradition, and it's something that I think people seek.

MARTIN: I have a question for both of you. There are a lot of people who can relate to President Obama's dilemma for reasons other than fame or celebrity or politics, for a variety of reasons.

It can be difficult or sensitive or uncomfortable to find the place that's right for you. So I wanted to ask each of you. What advice do you have for those who, like the Obamas, have not yet settled on a place of worship, whether other people are watching them or not?

Rev. SNYDER: You know, what I hear at Foundry from our new members again and again is that they went looking for churches. They walked into our church, and they just knew it was right, and I think that has to do with the makeup of the congregation. That has to do with the music and the feel of the congregation.

I assume there's a lot of people who walked into our church and felt it wasn't right, too, as well. So it's a hard thing to pin down. If I were a parent with young children, I mean, that would be a priority for me, a place where my kids could receive good nurturing in the faith tradition, a church where children were important and valued. And when I was not a pastor but working on a bishop's staff, and I needed to find a church, we wanted a church that was deeply engaged within the community and where there was an opportunity for us to serve.

And so there's a lot of - it depends in part on what's really important to you as a person or a family.

MARTIN: What about you?

The Rev. MURPHY: We live in a society where we're told we need to shop around, and certainly there's an old song: My momma told me you'd better shop around.

I think it's something that, when you're looking for a church home, you want to look at first what was a good fit for you but also where you feel led to go. Certainly, the president's family have to take into consideration politics and those type of issues, but I think ultimately a church is a very serious and intentional choice to make, you know, where you want to be in terms of your faith development and growth and where you want to pray on a weekly basis and where you want to be influenced.

Certainly clergy, we have influence over the lives of members who come to the church in terms that we're preaching to them week after week, and so it is a very discerning process that I think needs to be taken seriously.

And one other thing I want to say. People's Church, when you come in, you know it is an African-American church. We have stained glass windows that were created by Dr. David Driskell.

MARTIN: The renowned artist.

Rev. MURPHY: The renowned artist Dr. David Driskell, and it takes you from Africa to slavery to freedom. And the stained glass windows make a statement about who we are as a faith community.

MARTIN: Reverend Michael Murphy is senior pastor of People's Congregational United Church of Christ here in Washington, D.C., and the Reverend Dean Snyder is senior minister at Foundry United Methodist Church, also in Washington, D.C., and they were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rev. MURPHY: Thank you.

Rev. SNYDER: Thank you, Michel.

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