D.C. pastor Derrick Harkins offers perspective on Obama’s faith

Derrick Harkins knew that welcoming an incoming President of the United States to his church would be a memorable experience for himself and his congregation. What he didn’t know was how much of an ordinary service it would be in dimension and how grateful he would be for that in retrospect. “Planning for the service was obviously different with the Secret Service and that dimension, but our aim was to try and make the visit as simple as we could make it,” Harkins said. Harkins in the senior pastor at 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. The church history dates back to 1839 as the First Colored Church in Washington. It became known as 19th Street Baptist in 1870 and has been viewed for decades as a hub of African-American spirituality in the District. Its rich civil rights history included it being a rallying point for the 1963 March on Washington best known for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It currently resides on 16th street in northwest D.C. but has retained its name to keep its historical context. An important new chapter in its history was written Jan. 18 when then President-elect Obama and his family attended worship two days prior to the inauguration. “It was obviously a moment in history we were proud to be a part of, but reflecting on it the point has been made that it generally was a seamless worship service,” Harkins said. “We certainly acknowledged the presence of the Obamas. The majority of the service was carrying out our praise and glorifying God which is how you want it to be.” Harkins knows the dynamic would have been different had the President spoke to the congregation, something which Harkins is pleased didn’t take place so the family could participate in worship with everyone else. Obama has yet to settle on a regular congregation to attend in D.C., although he has joined the membership at non-denominational Evergreen Church at Camp David. Not joining a local congregation has prompted fire in Obama’s direction questioning his commitment to faith and also raised the specter of his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright. “We’ve had many people who have worshiped with us for a number and taken their time over a number of months to decide whether this is the place for them for fellowship,” Harkins said. “I don’t find it unusual at all that someone would take their time to find a new church. He also has a few other things on his plate right now. … Whatever decisions he and his family make stands in contrast to the public perception of that choice. Where they’ve come from (in regard to Wright) is an unfortunate burden to bear, but the more of an issue it is with the media, it’s to be expected.” Harkins also sees a difficult set of faith-related policy hurdles for Obama. In the ongoing storm of the health care reform debate the prospect of abortions being funded through a government public option has been a point of contention. “I think we’re all waiting with baited breath for (Wednesday) when he addresses the health care issue before Congress, but it is clear that there has been no mention of specifically providing any federal funding for abortions in any proposals. This also creates a real philosophical conundrum because you can’t disprove a negative.” Harkins does feel, however, that driving down the number or abortions needs to be a public health goal. “In a perfect paradigm I don’t think any church would condone abortion,” he said. “I think there needs to be a clear consensus that people from a pro-choice standpoint should coalesce around that abortion reduction should be strongly encouraged from a health care perspective.” In the social realm of the African-American community, Harkins believes Obama needs to continue to take advantage of his own background to promote familial stability and personal responsibility on the part of fathers. “I think the integrity and authenticity he brings to the discussion born out of his own experiences gives him a genuine sense of how to address this,” Harkins said. “There are two ways to understand this from a socioeconomic standpoint and in a spiritual context as to the importance of the family to Christians culturally. While he is his positioned to speak directly to black men, this is not just an African-American issue because we all have to look at the importance of the commitment it takes to have a successful family.” Harkins is very aware, though, of the socially conservative streak that runs through African-American congregations, particularly in regard to homosexuality. The large African-American turnout last November in California not only helped Obama gain the White House, it helped pave the way for the passage of that state’s Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage. Both as a senator and President, Obama has expressed skepticism at the federal Defense of Marriage Act and earlier this year extended insurance benefits to partners of gay federal employees. “There is no question the issue of gay rights is an inner struggle of faith for many people,” Harkins said. “Even though people come from vastly different perspectives and this can be a point of friction or contention, I believe there is enough latitude here for people to find some common ground.” One area many Christians of all races are concerned about is the trending away from the faith in general, particularly among younger generations, which has been widely reported this year. Harkins sees it as the responsibility of each believer to illustrate his or her faith in concrete way to demonstrate the importance of a relationship with Christ. “What’s important for young people to understand is the transformative power of God and how it impacts them in word and deed,” Harkins said. “What speaks the most is how we show our faith and how it can impact the world, not just in our small corner of it.” Link: 19th Street Baptist Church: http://www.nsbcdc.org/

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  1. URLaughable said:

    Reverend Harkins, I commend you heartily on your views and delivery of them……have YOU ever considered public office? (although the office you hold now is truly vital if we are to keep the Christian faith from splintering into two factions of “those who loudly espouse their faith” and “those who simply live it”. THANK YOU for your insight

    September 13, 2009
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