Obama took the pulpit to deliver a powerful sermon–one of my favorites, later called “The Joshua Generation” speech, in which he masterfully linked his own diverse lineage, the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, and the political moment of that day.
But it was what happened before his formal remarks that really stood out to me. We staff had prepared a standard “acknowledgments card” for Obama to read, with the names of clergy, elected officials, and other dignitaries to thank before his speech. He read those acknowledgments but when he was finished, Senator Obama said there was one more person who hadn’t been recognized.
He looked out into the packed congregation and saw a wizened face sitting several pews back, an old man who looked to be well north of 80 years. None of the other speakers had noticed the man at that point, and we had not introduced him to Senator Obama before the service began. But Obama pointed to him and said, “and finally friends, here with us today is Dr. C.T. Vivian. Let’s pause and thank him. That’s the man Dr. Martin Luther King called the greatest preacher to ever live.”
Vivian’s smile grew wide and eyes teary at the unexpected acknowledgment. Several of us marveled at how we had missed the great Dr. Vivian–whose activism precipitated the 1965 march in the first place–and how Obama had picked his face out from so many others in the crowd. It was a beautiful nod across generations, a pause from that pulpit that I’ll never forget.
There were many other remarkable moments of worship. I remember being at Allen Chapel A.M.E. in Washington for Easter services in 2010, when the entire Obama family–Barack, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and Ms. Robinson–knelt to take the bread and wine of communion. A week earlier, a drive-by shooting had rocked that same neighborhood, taking five lives and injuring four. The First Family’s attendance at that Easter service added a bit of temporal healing in that community to the eternal hope symbolized by Christ’s body and blood.