Church Leaders Welcome Obama, Urge Prayers

November 06, 2008

A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*

Nov. 5, 2008
The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell remembers a childhood in which his family gathered around a kitchen radio in their Texas home to cheer on Joe Louis, as the African-American heavyweight champion took on white competitors in the boxing ring.
On election night on November 4, the 75-year-old Caldwell and his wife, Grace, sat in front of his living room TV in Asbury Park, New Jersey, to cheer on another black man as Barack Obama sought to win the most powerful government office in the United States - perhaps in the world.
"I could not have imagined I'd live long enough to see this," said Caldwell, one day after Obama's election as the 44th President of the United States. "The right to vote has been so important in the struggle for civil rights."
A retired United Methodist pastor, Caldwell (at right, in UMNS photo by Mike DuBose) was a foot soldier in the civil rights movement and founding member of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. He emphasized the need to remember the struggles and sacrifices of the past as the church and the world look ahead with hope, under a new leader in the White House. "When an event happens like the election of Barack Obama, we cannot help but recall what brought us to this moment," he said.
Across The United Methodist Church, leaders hailed Obama as an agent of change, a friend of the disenfranchised, a "gift" to the world and a bridge-builder among cultures, social orders, and national ideologies. Others urged United Methodists to commit to pray regularly for the incoming President as he faces the daunting challenges of two wars, a stumbling economy, and a battered international reputation under the administration of George W. Bush, who is United Methodist.
"A new page in history has been turned," said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the church's social advocacy agency. "Virtually the entire world is grateful for and approves of the election results."
Erin Hawkins, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, said the election of the first African-American President signals an important step toward restoration in the world. "It means truly, in the poet's words, that the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice. It means that this nation is ready to chart a new, bold future of fundamental change," Hawkins said.
An African-American herself, Hawkins said the historic election is more significant than anyone can adequately express. "A truly African-American leader and his African-American family will soon occupy the White House, which was built by slaves more than two centuries ago—and together they will lead this nation into a world and a 21st century full of hope and transformation," she said.
Beyond a black and white world
The Rev. James Lawson (below), a civil rights leader and retired United Methodist pastor who helped organize the sanitation strike in Memphis in 1968, said the election of Obama is transformational.
"… The election of Barack Obama for the United States at this time and for the world is a gift," said Lawson, speaking from Nashville, Tennessee, where he organized nonviolent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in 1960. "… It has to be understood that this is the way in which the spirit of God works in human circles."
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor of the Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City, Missouri, said Obama's election signals to the world "a new approach to foreign policy and a new opportunity for America to improve our standing and influence in the world arena.
"On the continent of Africa where China is gaining increasing influence, Barack Obama's election was hailed with great enthusiasm. In Asia, in Muslim countries, in Europe, Barack Obama is seen as a bridge-builder and a new kind of leader—one that inspires hope while leading America with a greater humility on the world stage," said Hamilton, author of Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics.
Hamilton said Obama's election demonstrates "the desire of millions of voters for a President who can see the gray in a world that is often painted in black and white terms.
"He is comfortable dealing with paradox and complexity. He has the ability to pursue a conjunctive approach to faith and politics—one that brings together concerns of both the left and the right into a powerful third way," said Hamilton, noting that that approach strikes a chord with Methodists who historically have held together the concerns of both liberals and conservatives and preached both evangelical and social gospels.
Prayers for a new President
In St. Simons Island, South Carolina, the United Methodist Council of Bishops paused during its semiannual meeting to offer up hymns and prayers for Obama, the nation, and the world on the day following Election Day.
"We are praying that God will grant you wisdom, courage, and protection in your Presidential leadership," the council wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to the President-elect. "We are also praying for all the leaders of the world's nations, who will collaborate with you in the arena of common concerns that impact the global community."
James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News, an evangelical caucus of United Methodists, said everyone should pray for Obama as he prepares to take office in January. "The pressures, challenge, and responsibilities of the Presidency must be overwhelming. Christians everywhere should remember to lift him before the Lord daily for wisdom, strength, and guidance as he leads the nation," Heidinger said.
Faye Short, president of Renew Network, an evangelical group focused on United Methodist women, had a similar message. "The people have spoken," she said. "It is incumbent upon all Christians to pray for our leaders as we are enjoined to do in Scripture. We urge all within the church to pray for our new President-elect, just as we have for all of our Presidents."
Crossing barriers
According to exit polls, Obama handily won the vote of women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and the nation's youth.
Raúl Alegría, president of the United Methodist caucus of Hispanics and Latinos, noted that the nation's Hispanic population is not monolithic in its voting, but that Obama's message transcended cultural and ethnic lines.
"The messages he conveyed regarding transforming the systems that affect persons—particularly in their pocketbooks and issues of economics—are issues that resonated with people who are Hispanic and Latino, just as they did with other groups," he said. "The message I heard with respect to matters of justice and wanting to bring a sense of unity into our country resonated personally with me, because I feel like our country has had some division, and we are at the point in our nation's life where we can look forward to working together in common purpose."
Michelle Brooks, a 30-year-old staff member with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said Obama's message and style effectively engaged young people in the political process.
"It wasn't just about saying young people are the future. It was saying they are here and now, and they can participate and add voice to the entire political process," she said, adding that she was impressed that Obama asked individuals to take personal responsibility in improving their neighborhoods, communities, and beyond.
Julie O’Neal, a staff member with the denomination's Young People’s Ministries, believes youthful voters were drawn to Obama's "humility and honesty and desire for leaders to be transparent."
"I think young people were so energized and vocal because this election captured something within them that had never been spoken directly to, or about them, before. I think they saw themselves in this election," O'Neal said.
Others said matters of faith were a factor. Both Obama and opponent John McCain are professing Christians.
"Barack Obama is a person of deep faith," Winkler said. "I was reminded of that fact last night when he made sure the (election night) festivities in Grant Park began with an invocation. I fully expect [that] The United Methodist Church, for the first time in many years, will be welcomed in the White House."
In Arizona, McCain's home state, the Rev. Karen Vannoy praised McCain's "incredibly healing concession speech."
"His reminder—that what we share as Americans is so much greater than what divides us—is even more true for us as Christians," said Vannoy, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Phoenix. "Because we share Jesus as Lord, we share common ground [that is] much broader and more important than any of the kingdoms of this world. We share the faith that our future ultimately is not dependent on any President, and that we must work together as a voice for the last, the least and the lost."
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service. Contributing to this report were UMNS staff members Kathy L. Gilbert, Linda Green, Linda Bloom, Fran Walsh, and Mike Hickcox.