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The Obamas Find a Church Home — Away from Home

4 minute read
Amy Sullivan

For the past five months, White House aides and friends of the Obamas have been quietly visiting Washington-area churches and vetting the sermons of local ministers in search of a new–and uncontroversial–church home for the First Family. The President even sampled a few himself, showing up for services at 19th Street Baptist Church on the weekend before his Inauguration and celebrating Easter at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

But in the midst of the church search, Barack Obama has found an unexpected place to bow his head. He and his family have chosen to worship most often not at a bustling urban church but at a rustic chapel in the Catoctin Mountains at Camp David, a 75-minute drive from Washington. It’s a preference the new President shares with George W. Bush, who made the presidential retreat’s Evergreen Chapel his primary place of worship during his time in office.

Some presidential watchers are surprised that the Obamas haven’t already joined a local congregation. This is, after all, a First Family that has embraced the capital city, popping up at what seems like every burger joint, soup kitchen and soccer field around town. But it’s one thing to cheer on Sasha and Malia in front of a crowd; it’s another to worship on display.

Obama was reportedly taken aback by the circus that attended his January visit to 19th Street Baptist. Lines started forming three hours before the morning service, and many longtime members were literally left out in the cold as the pews filled with spectators. At St. John’s, on Lafayette Square, worshippers couldn’t help snapping photos of Obama with their camera phones as they walked past him to take Communion. “The President continues to have [concerns] about the disruptive nature of his presence on any particular Sunday,” said press secretary Robert Gibbs at a recent briefing.

The challenge of being part of a church community while also praying in peace has long been a problem for Presidents. In his book America’s First Families, historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony wrote that William McKinley, for instance, “hated having people staring at him while he read Psalms, sang hymns, put money in the collection plate or took communion … By the 1920s, getting a presidential family in and out of church was a production.”

The First Family won’t have that problem at Camp David, where the 150-seat Evergreen Chapel attracts a congregation of 50 to 70 people most Sundays. The stone-and-wood octagonal structure was built nearly two decades ago using private funds; President George H.W. Bush dedicated it in 1991. At the ceremony, the late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington delivered a sermon calling the chapel a “witness to our common belief that we need to seek divine guidance in the conduct of our national affairs.”

Each week, regardless of whether the President is on-site, Evergreen Chapel holds nondenominational Christian services open to the nearly 400 military personnel and staff at Camp David, as well as their families. An organist from nearby Hood College organizes adult and children’s choirs. (Bill Clinton liked to sing with the choir when he visited.) In December, kids put on angel wings for a Christmas pageant, and a candlelight service takes place on Christmas Eve.

Camp David’s current chaplain, Lieutenant Carey Cash, leads the services at Evergreen. If the White House had custom-ordered a pastor to be the polar opposite of Jeremiah Wright, it could not have done better than Cash. (The White House had no hand in selecting Cash. The Navy assigns chaplains to Camp David on three-year tours.) The 39-year-old Memphis, Tenn., native is a graduate of the Citadel and the great-nephew of Johnny Cash. He served as chaplain with a Marine battalion in Iraq (baptizing nearly 60 Marines) and graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. And yes, that means Obama’s most frequent preacher is a Southern Baptist.

The White House–wary of disappointing the legion of Washington pastors who have lobbied to score the Obamas as new members–is taking pains to emphasize that the First Family has not made any “formal” decisions about “joining” a church. (Evergreen Chapel isn’t a membership congregation, in any case, so it wouldn’t be possible for them to formally become members.) Officially, “the President and First Family continue to look for a church home.” But in the meantime, Obama has told aides he enjoys the little chapel in the woods, the better to hear what Elijah called “the still, small voice of God.”

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