Obama speaks from pulpit, noting progress and difficulty in America

President Obama, speaking Sunday from the pulpit of a church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sometimes spoke, called on the congregation to rally around the spirit that had helped their ancestors pursue a long road to freedom.

“It’s that progress that allowed me to be here today,” said Obama, the first African American president.

The president, who doesn’t frequently attend church in Washington and has not found a permanent congregation in the capital, joined services at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church along with First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha.

The church, founded in 1866 by seven freed slaves, originally was known as the Fifth Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.

“It feels like a family,” Obama told the congregation.

There are a couple of occasions that might have prompted Sunday’s outing: the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians in an earthquake that has shaken the world and King’s birthday, which is celebrated today as a national holiday.


“We gather here on the Sabbath at a time of extreme difficulty for our nation and the world,” the president said, speaking much like a preacher from the pulpit. “We are not here just to ask the Lord for his blessing. . . . We’re also here to call on the memory of one of his noble servants, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Obama said he had come to “a church formed by freed slaves . . . whose congregants set out for marches . . . from whose sanctuary King himself would sermonize from time to time.”

It was as much of a sermon as it was a speech.

“Folks ask me sometimes why I look so calm,” Obama said, his voice rising.

“I have a confession to make here. There are times where I am not so calm. . . . There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting. . . . During those times it is faith that brings me calm.”

Obama hasn’t yet found a new sanctuary for his family in a town far from home, where his longtime association with one church -- particularly one pastor -- became a problem for his presidential campaign.

Since severing his ties with the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago -- where the now-retired Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. delivered sermons that, by the president’s own admission, were racially “incendiary” -- Obama has been in search of a new church.

Time magazine once reported that the Obamas had chosen the chapel at Camp David, the Maryland mountain retreat that presidents have used since the 1950s. The White House said Time got it wrong.

Observers thought the president had signaled his intentions in visiting the little St. John’s Church across a park from the White House, but Obama hasn’t often attended services there, either.

On Sunday, reciting the history of the modern civil rights movement, the president spoke of the despair “about whether the movement in which they had placed so many of their hopes . . . could actually deliver on its promise. . . .

“Here we are, more than half a century later, once again facing the challenges of a new age . . . once again marching toward an unknown future,” Obama said. “We’ve inherited the progress of unjust laws that are now overturned.”

Noting that this progress had made his election possible, Obama said, “There were some who suggested that somehow we had entered into a post-racial America. . . . There were those who argued that . . . our nation was somehow entering into a period of post-partisanship. That didn’t work out so well.”

It is tempting, Obama said, “to give up on the political process. . . . Progress is possible. Don’t give up on voting. Don’t give up on advocacy. Don’t give up on activism.”

As King had said, Obama said Sunday, progress must “come from within.”

He noted that people are wont to say he is addressing the black community on occasions such as this. “No, no, no,” he said. “I’m talking to the American community.”