An African taking vows in America

sf_1st_comm_1911From time to time, your GetReligionistas are accused — accurately, I might add — of whining about the fact that many religion stories in the mainstream media are too short, too shallow or have too many holes in them, world without end. Amen.

We’re all journalists, or have worked in the mainstream, so we know that this is a cheap shot. Reporters can write all kinds of interesting things when given the time and the space to touch all the information bases that they want to touch.

However, here’s a Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun report that is so good and so timely, that I have to point out that it really doesn’t seem to take seriously a question that is actually asked in the text of the story itself. Here’s the top of the feature by Scott Calvert, from my neck of the woods, Catonsville, Md.:

As incense smoke danced in the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, Anthonia Nwoga knelt in the hushed chapel for the long-awaited moment. It took but a few seconds. Off came the white veil she had worn for the last year. On went a black one that she may keep for life.

Taking the black veil this week signified Nwoga’s first profession of vows — a key step toward a permanent commitment to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s oldest religious order of African American women, founded in Baltimore 180 years ago.

For this Roman Catholic congregation, Our Lady of Mount Providence, based since 1961 in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Nwoga’s decision brings a dose of hope at a time of declining numbers at religious orders. In the last year and a half, 10 elderly sisters have died. But Nwoga is one of only a few to don the black veil in recent years.

A few lines later, we find out an interesting fact. Nwoga is, in a sense, not an African American at all. She is a Nigerian who is taking her vows here in America — in a rite led by a priest from Nigeria, to underscore the same point. And there is a hint at the hole in the story.

You see, there is nothing all that unusual about women and men taking Catholic vows in Africa, one of the regions in the world in which Catholicism is booming — a fact noted in many of those stories about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Africa, at least those not focusing on the politics of condoms.

This leads to the question that is asked, sort of, in this story as well as the question that is not asked.

Sisters attribute the declining interest in religious orders to forces such as rising materialism and wider opportunities for women to take part in church life without becoming nuns.

As recently as the 1960s, as many as 18 young women entered annual classes at the Oblate Sisters of Providence. At its peak, the order had about 300 members. Today, it’s down to 80 or so. The order remains mostly African American, but it has long had members from Latin America as well. There have also been white members — such as Sister John Francis Schilling, president of St. Frances.

Nwoga is the order’s third Nigerian-born member, and she thinks there might be a need to seek new sisters in Africa.

You think?

So, the implied question is this: Why are Catholic orders on the decline in American Catholicism (and in Europe, while we are at it)? The flip side of that question is obvious: Why are Catholic orders growing in Africa and in some other parts of the world, especially in the Southern Cone?

Read the Sun story carefully and tell me if you see any information that truly helps answer these questions. The references to materialism and a wider range of ministries for women are, of course, highly relevant. But is that all there is? Are there other demographic and/or doctrinal issues at play?

Photo: A look into the past, from the history page of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

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More Armenian ghosts (again)

arm91Trust me, I realize that what I am about to write falls into the “there he goes again, saying the same old things” category. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I know that it is.

That’s OK. I still think that there are religion ghosts — millions of them — in all of that bitter debate about whether Turkey did or did not commit genocide against the nation’s Armenians in the early 20th century.

Yes, ethnicity was a major factor. Yes, politics was involved. But so was the ancient Christian faith of the Armenian Orthodox and the unique, at times mysterious, “secular” brand of Islam advocated by the Turks. To say otherwise is simply bizarre.

The situation is, of course, horribly complex and emotional. Disputes mixing money, religion, politics and ethnicity usually are. But it doesn’t help to gouge the soul out of this still bleeding body.

If you doubt what I am saying, try running a Google search for this hame — “Hrant Dink.” Or just click here, scroll down, and read a bit. Then read some more.

However, if you click here and read a recent Los Angeles Times report about the genocide debate, you will learn absolutely nothing about the role that religion has played in this old, old story that is now haunting the White House. This isn’t a conflict that includes a religion angle, don’t you know? Here’s the top of this haunted report:

The Obama administration is hesitating on a promised presidential declaration that Armenians were the victims of genocide in the early 20th century, fearful of alienating Turkey when U.S. officials badly want its help.

President Obama and other top administration officials pledged during the presidential campaign to officially designate the 1915 killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. Many Armenian Americans, who are descendants of the victims and survivors, have long sought such a declaration.

But the administration also has been soliciting Ankara’s help on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other security issues amid Turkish warnings that an official U.S. statement would imperil Turkey’s assistance. Administration officials are considering postponing a presidential statement, citing progress toward a thaw in relations between Turkey and neighboring Armenia.

So, what was the alleged genocide all about? Here is one chunk of facts from this report:

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were victims of planned killings by the Ottoman Turks as the empire was dissolving during World War I, an episode historians have concluded was a genocide. But Turkey and some of its supporters contend that the deaths resulted from civil war and unrest and that their numbers were exaggerated. …

Obama declared repeatedly during his campaign that the killings were genocide. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are on record with similar positions. But the Obama administration would like to use Turkey as part of the military supply line for Afghanistan. It also would like more help regarding Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, Russia and Mideast peace.

The current government of Turkey is very nervous about this issue. This is no surprise. But why?

The bottom line question: Is this simply about nationalism and ethnic pride? Really? Read the story and try to find even a hint that there is more to the conflict than that.

Photo: The Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia.

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Obama and the pro-life left (again)

obamachurchagain1For Christians in the West, Easter is not that far away and a strange combination of politicos and professional pew observers inside the DC Beltway are turning up the heat on the Obama family church watch.

The McClatchy DC bureau recently provided an overview of the process in a news feature that, naturally, focuses on life after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and views this issue primarily through the prism of race, rather than doctrine. Here’s a sample:

As America’s first black president, Obama faces another unique conundrum: whether to join a historically black church. Then there are standard logistical concerns: What churches could accommodate frequent presidential visits without seriously disrupting the existing congregation’s ability to attend services? Which can the Secret Service best secure? Which routes work well for a motorcade?

Of those churches that best fit the Obamas culturally — ideologically and in terms of community service — which have the best youth programs for children Sasha and Malia?

“The Obamas are committed Christians, and they are certainly looking forward to a place to worship in their time in Washington,” said Joshua DuBois, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and one of a handful of aides assisting the family’s search. “What has become clear is that it’s no easy task.”

Note that interesting word “ideologically,” which is almost certainly code language for issues of moral theology. In other words, President Barack Obama needs a church that fits his unique background and that includes an approach to moral issues that is to the left of most major African-American congregations. The family would certainly be welcomed in one of Washington’s major black churches, but there might be awkward moments if the sermons and Christian education offerings were a bit too, well, literal when it comes to the Bible.

Meanwhile, Godbeat veteran Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times has assembled a truly fascinating look at the clergy who — in the post Wright age — have stepped in to minister to Obama during this transition period. Call them the “kitchen clergy,” instead of a “kitchen cabinet”?

It is interesting that, in the lede, she chooses to say that Obama is primarily reaching out to “evangelical” — whatever that means — pastors. Then we read:

All are men, two of them white and three black — including the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a graying lion of the civil rights movement. Two, the entrepreneurial dynamos Bishop T. D. Jakes and the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, also served as occasional spiritual advisers to President George W. Bush. Another, the Rev. Jim Wallis, leans left on some issues, like military intervention and poverty programs, but opposes abortion.

None of these pastors are affiliated with the religious right, though several are quite conservative theologically. One of them, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida, was branded a turncoat by some leaders of the Christian right when he began to speak out on the need to stop global warming.

But as a group they can hardly be characterized as part of the religious left either. Most, like Mr. Wallis, do not take traditionally liberal positions on abortion or homosexuality. What most say they share with the president is the conviction that faith is the foundation in the fight against economic inequality and social injustice.

The questions looming in the background: How do you build a truly mainstream coalition for social justice without the authority of the Bible? But how do you embrace the Bible — as interpreted by mainstream churches for centuries — on one set of issues while shunning what it says on another set? Before you click “comment,” let me note that I think that this second, rather judgmental statement is equally true for many, many, many leaders on the religious right.

The story skates close to highly personal material, including the tricky question of whether Obama truly takes part in these prayer sessions or listens. The testimony is that he is very much a participant.

It is also impossible to leave politics out of all of this:

The pastor in the circle who has known Mr. Obama the longest is Mr. Wallis, president and chief executive of Sojourners, a liberal magazine and movement based in Washington. In contrast to the other four, his contact with the president has been focused more on policy than prayer. Mr. Wallis has recently joined conservatives in pressing the president’s office of faith-based initiatives to continue to allow government financing for religious social service groups that hire only employees of their own faith.

Mr. Wallis said he got to know Mr. Obama in the late 1990s when they participated in a traveling seminar that took bus trips to community programs across the country. …

“He and I were what we called back then ‘progressive Christians,’ as opposed to the dominant religious-right era we were in then,” Mr. Wallis said. “We didn’t think Jesus’ top priorities would be capital gains tax cuts and supporting the next war.”

Once again we face the question asked by E.J. Dionne, Jr., and others: How does Obama proceed on the social-justice issues that matter the most to him without the pro-life middle and left, including Catholic support?

Obama is a sincere liberal Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ a flock dominated by liberal congregations that in recent decades have defined the left border of American Christianity. It is also one of America’s fastest shrinking denominations. But it offers Obama the theological approach that he wants, on matters of biblical interpretation. Is it politically possible for Obama stay in that pew?

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Faith in the backdrop

Amidst this country’s discussion on race, the subject of religion appears more often than not, but not always in the appropriate context. The importance of churches, religious groups and faith in the civil rights movement cannot be overstated. A striking area that should not be forgotten is the effect race has played, particularly in the south, in scholastic athletics.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines program profiled an amazing story Sunday morning of how race plays an invisible role today due to a horrific incident that happened 93 years ago and how faith helps heal those wounds:

You’re Marty Cann, and you told the reporter from the Columbia paper that the accused murderer must have been some other Cann. You know your dad, and you knew your granddad, and you know yourself, and a Cann simply couldn’t kill a man, let alone lead a lynching. But the reporter showed you his research, and you were crushed. Then it got much worse: A great-grandson of the victim, Darrell Crawford, is also a coach at Abbeville High. You soul-searched for weeks, months, now years, as you and Darrell saw each other every now and then without really talking. What does it mean to be a Cann? Your dad doesn’t want you talking about it. But part of you wonders why he didn’t talk about it with you. “I was never told about this,” you say. “I got a great mom and dad … but I never have been someone that has shared with them how I feel. And so this is an emotional-type thing and so, you know, I just …” You don’t know how to finish that thought. Who could?

The story is about love and the role of forgiveness. Although the article doesn’t mention religion much, other than the fact that Darrell Crawford is a preacher in addition to his role as a high school track coach, the television version of the story did explore some of the religious issues that go to the heart of the story today. The narrator of the show described Crawford’s preaching as “a message of compassion to a community that was once torn by racial conflict” and talks about how Cann still prays about it.

As for the relationship between Cann and Crawford today, the Outside the Lines interview described it in this manner:

“Forgiving the ones who are here now is like laying blame on them, and they didn’t do it. So I’m at peace with it,” says Crawford. …

Knowing Coach Cann as a Christian man, and one who loves the children and one who works with all children no matter what their race is, I couldn’t hate Coach Cann because of something that happened in the past. You have to endure hate with love. Instead of hating, my family has always dwelt in love.

Unfortunately, the print version of this story seems to ignore the topic of sin and the fact that Crawford is a pastor. Here is a snippet of the article that does discuss the role Crawford’s status of a preacher plays in this story:

You are Darrell Crawford, 39 years old, and you weren’t expecting to run into Marty Cann here. But Abbeville doesn’t have a lot of gas stations, so it’s not exactly a shock. You are still struggling with the fact that your family tragedy has become a public discussion, but you’re a preacher, so you’re used to having people watch you.

Overall, the Outside the Lines version of the story does a much better job discussing the religious issues at the core of this story. Perhaps that is because the television version allowed the individuals speak more in their own voices. Overall, these are the types of stories that must be told. The role of religion must be reported for the simple reason that it is part of the story.

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Hope, change and prayer

08-opening-prayer_jpgDan Gilgoff, who runs the God & Country blog over at U.S. News & World Report, picked up on a little noticed but terribly interesting development in civil religion. Apparently President Obama’s public events are now being launched with prayers from local leaders.

Gilgoff introduces us to Ryan Culp of Elkhart, Ind. He’s a high school teacher and conservative Republican who attends the same evangelical church in which he grew up. He delivered an invocation before a nationally televised town hall meeting to sell President Obama’s $800 billion spending bill. He wrote the prayer and called an aide from the White House Office of Public Liaison for vetting. It passed:

The White House had no revisions for the prayer, which opened with the line: “Dear Heavenly Father, we come to you this day thanking you for who you are–a God that cares about each of our needs, our desires, and our fears.” Culp delivered it the following day at Obama’s town hall meeting, landing a handshake from the president and mentions in several local papers.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience for Culp has become routine for President Obama: In a departure from previous presidents, his public rallies are opening with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House.

What a great idea for a story. We’re then introduced to someone else who gave a prayer recently:

During Obama’s recent visit to Fort Myers, Fla., to promote his economic stimulus plan, a black Baptist preacher delivered a prayer that carefully avoided mentioning Jesus, lest he offend anyone in the audience. And at Obama’s appearance last week near Phoenix to unveil his mortgage bailout plan, an administrator for the Tohono O’odham Nation delivered the prayer, taking the unusual step of writing it down so he could E-mail it to the White House for vetting. American Indian prayers are typically improvised.

I wonder why we learn the race of this pastor, James Bing. We didn’t learn the race of Culp, for instance. Still, the inclusion of the angle about the offense caused by proper nouns is such an important thing to mention. (Of course, I wish those of us who are offended by the avoidance of proper nouns got a hearing, too!) There’s a fascinating quote later in the story from Bing, by the way.

The story does a good job of showing how these invocations and the vetting process compare to past presidential practice. Basically, it’s unprecedented, according to various folks interviewed for the story.

“If a similar thing had been done by President Bush’s White House, I guarantee you there would have been a lot of people crying foul,” says Bill Wichterman, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison under President George W. Bush. “Democrats can do this with immunity, but when Republicans do it, it becomes controversial.”

The Obama administration may have skirted controversy by scheduling the invocations to be delivered before the president arrives at the events–and before national cable network cameras start rolling. “Having prayers in places like Indiana where public prayers are commonplace would help the president,” says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Whereas seeing it on national TV would cause controversy because there are places where these things are less popular.”

The Obama White House declined to comment about the program, other than to say that it has “been standard since the campaign,” according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki. So far, the names of those delivering invocations have appeared on the official presidential schedules that the White House distributes to the press. Culp is described in a press schedule as “a well-respected faith leader in the community.”

But many church/state experts are unfamiliar with the program. “The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said upon learning of the Obama invocations.

Gilgoff notes that no one has been asked to change their prayers. Lynn is quoted saying that the existence of the vetting process is problematic for other reasons.

In addition to the story, Gilgoff posted audio of the prayers and more information about how presidents have handled prayer in the past.

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Untold Super Christian stories

Art Stricklin of Baptist Press had an excellent profile of the faith of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin earlier this week. Unfortunately, the article seems to be one of the only works of print journalism to be on top of Tomlin’s life-story of faith.

There are two levels of Tomlin’s story that are interesting. Both mirror a head coach-story from a couple of years ago. First, Tomlin is the third African-American coach in the NFL to take his team to the Super Bowl and second, he is relatively outspoken about his faith. While his story is unique, these are two significant similarities to the 2007 Super Bowl involving the Indianapolis Colts’ Tony Dungy. The personalities are different, but the faith is the same.

Here is the material from the Baptist Press article that could have been hooked into the many profiles of Tomlin published this week:

Until this week’s Super Bowl XLIII between the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, Tomlin had never had the international platform to follow his mentor Dungy and speak about his faith in Jesus Christ. But that’s exactly what he did before hundreds of reporters in Tampa.

“First and foremost, I want people to know who I am and what the most important thing is in my life, my relationship with Jesus Christ,” Tomlin said in response to a Baptist Press question about his personal faith.

“Football is what we do; faith is who we are all the time.”

Stricklin does a good job showing where Tomlin stands in the Dungy coaching tree (former assistant at Tampa Bay), but also where he stands in Dungy’s discipleship tree. Those post-game comments from players and coaches about the significance of their faith may receive a certain level of eye-rolling from the media, but it is that very faith that motivates the behavior that the television announcers will no doubt praise during the game.

Tomlin’s many profiles don’t completely ignore the faith aspects of his story. Take for instance this quote in a column by The Boston Herald‘s John Tomase:

“I’ve been blessed that I have worked with some great people, people who took a stake in my development,” Tomlin said. “And really, I pull from all of it on a day-to-day basis — lessons learned from leadership. It’s about people. It’s about taking care of the troops. It’s about putting them first. I’ve learned that if you are going to lead, you try to lead with a servant’s heart. I try to do that — try to take care of my men and give them what they need to be great.”

Words and phrases such as “blessed” and “servant’s heart” must unfortunately act as code words for readers who know more about the story. I wish reporters would be more blunt.

Dave Fairbank of the Daily Press also hints at the faith issue:

Tomlin, a father of three, has expanded his charitable work to the Pittsburgh area.

He has participated in charity events there and is a member of the group All Pro Dad, an organization with deep NFL ties that helps men become better fathers.

“Most of the kids looking up to athletes think that there’s a possibility that they can get there,” Orie said, “but there’s a lot more that don’t get there than do. But having Mike as another alternative — it’s just like Mr. Obama being the president now — a kid can look up and say, ‘I can do that.’

“He’s a good role model because everyone that aspires to be an athlete is not going to be one, and he’s an example that you don’t have to be one to have a good life and have an impact on people.”

It would be interesting to compare the coverage of Tomlin with that of the coverage of Dungy when he was in his first Super Bowl. Much of the Dungy coverage focused on the fact that he was the first African-American coach in the NFL to take a team to the Super Bowl. But Dungy’s faith was part of that story just as it is part of Tomlin’s story.

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“Divine” diversity?

Arches.jpgWould George Washington have recognized the prayers, or the service, held yesterday at Washington’s National Cathedral?

The morning service featured approximately two dozen clergy of various faiths (the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have slightly different figures).

It was a notable display of civil religion –and I’m wondering why it didn’t get more and more in-depth coverage.

Reporters covered the story in sharply contrasting ways.

The Los Angeles Times led with who was included:

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived at Washington’s National Cathedral this morning for a prayer service that traces its origins to the inauguration of President George Washington.

Obama carries on that tradition today with a notably diverse group of religious leaders. The invitation-only service includes nearly two dozen clergy who represent, in their views and background, the theme of inclusion that Obama stressed in his campaign and in his inaugural address.

The sermon will be delivered by Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Disciples of Christ in North America, the first woman to play such a role in the inaugural religious ceremony.

The other clergy will present separate readings and prayers. They include Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America; and Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, a well-known African American pastor from Houston picked by former President George W. Bush to lead his inaugural prayer service four years ago will be participating as well.

The Washington Times story zoomed in on who wasn’t in the sanctuary :

Four Episcopalians and three Jews lead the list of religious figures selected to give sermons, prayers, Scripture readings and blessings at the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral.

The invitation-only service Wednesday morning, to be attended by the new president and vice president plus members of Congress, the Supreme Court and hundreds of foreign diplomats, will be built around themes of “tolerance, unity and understanding,” according to a press statement released Friday.

Several groups, including Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army and Mormons, were left out entirely.

Watkin’s sermon, with its personal charge to the new President, probably deserved more coverage than it got, too. Her lively delivery and impassioned words form an interesting contrast with President Obama’s inaugural address. Here’s a link.

Another, more general perspective on the service was provided on

I really wish that the reporters covering the service had given readers more details about the tradition of the prayer service. According to the Los Angeles Times, the post-inaugural lovefest dates back to an 18th-century Congressional mandate.

The national prayer service traces its origins to a congressional proclamation delivered three days before George Washington took the oath of office in New York City.

It directed that the president, vice president and members of Congress “proceed to St. Paul’s Chapel to hear divine service.”

Given that St. Paul’s Chapel was Anglican/Episcopal, the service probably was some variant on one of the denominational prayer services. Here’s a little background from the National Cathedral website.

Was the original consciously designed to include clergy of other faiths? I tend to doubt it, for multiple reasons.

But then I remembered a story about Bishop William White, Pennsylvania’s first Episcopal primate. White is alleged to have walked the streets of this fair city with a rabbi on one arm, and Catholic priest on the other. So perhaps the theme of “inclusivity” was not born yesterday.

Photo of arches in the Washington National Cathedral used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Obama’s cadence of Zion

Official_portrait_Barack_Obama2.jpgWhen presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said during the Republican primaries that he was comfortable speaking the language of Zion, he clearly referred to the social and, to some degree, theological contexts of conservative evangelical Protestants. I’ve long sensed that Obama speaks in the cadence of Zion, one that seems familiar to any ears familiar with black churches.

Linguist John McWhorter has helped explain this sound in a wonderful brief essay for The New Republic:

Black English is a matter not just of slang, but of sentence structure and sound (why you can tell most black people’s race over the phone, which is proven in studies). Some blacks use all three; Obama is one of the many who wields mostly the sound. Listen to the way he often ends sentences on a higher pitch than, say, Tom Brokaw would, with that preacherly hang-in-the-air. Or the way he often pronounces “history” as “historih,” “ability” as “abilitih.” His rendition of the word responsibility was indicative: with a cadence typical of Black English, capped by a final “ih.” No President has ever intoned sentences in this way, because they were not black.

Contrary to the fabulistic notion that gets around here and there that Black English is an African grammar with English words, the sentence structure is basically a blend of regional British dialects that slaves heard from their masters and the indentured servants you learned about in grade school. The sound, however, is partly a legacy of the African languages the slaves spoke. Especially, the melodic quality of Black English, heightened in sermons and speeches, is a legacy of the fact that in many African languages, pitch is as important in conveying what words mean as accent. In the way he said responsibility, he was using language in a way that is warp and woof of the grammar of, for example, his father’s native language Luo.

… It is certainly part of why Obama was elected. Imagine John Kerry or even either Clinton trying to get elected intoning “Yes, we can!” What made that seem prophetic, or even plausible, from Obama was that it was couched in a Black English intonation — partly church, maybe even a dash of street (a cousin of mine likes that Obama “has a bit of the ghetto in him”). This aspect of Obama’s oratory got to as many whites as blacks. “He’s just …, he’s just, oh, he’s just …!” white Obama fans would often exclaim as the Obamenon set in, grasping at the mot juste. Many of them had basically been to their first black church service. He was just … well, black.

Barack Obama’s portrait is from Wikimedia Commons.

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