UNITED Methodists were among the throngs of people who descended upon the nation’s capital to witness the inauguration of Mr Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.
When Mr Obama placed his hand on the 148-year-old Lincoln Bible on Jan 20 and said, “I do solemnly swear,” he became the first African American to ascend to the highest office in the land and added another layer to the foundation laid by the late Rev Martin Luther King Jr.
Ms Michelle Gilstrap, 17, came to Washington with a group from Cascade United Methodist Church, Atlanta. She told her mother that she wanted to attend the inauguration because “Barack Obama is the George Washington of our generation”.
The significance of the day left Bishop Gregory Palmer “breathless and feeling like I’m walking on air”. “It is unbelievable that this is happening, and I am so grateful to be a witness to it,” said Bishop Palmer, President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. “The barrier of race has been removed from the highest office in the land.”
He called for prayers for the President and Congress as they face the challenges ahead.
Mr Obama said at his inauguration: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father, less than 60 years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
The Rev Kelvin Sauls, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New York, found the inauguration to “be an awesome and powerful experience”. He recalled a line from the movie “Amistad,” a 1997 film depicting a mutiny aboard a slave ship that came to Connecticut in 1839. After the Supreme Court freed the slaves, the principal character, Cinque, said, “It is for this day that my ancestors lived and died.”
“As an African, experiencing the inauguration is a day for which our ancestors lived, toiled and died,” said the Rev Sauls, a native of South Africa. “The inauguration is certainly one stream in the river toward achieving a more perfect union and to continue to labour and journey toward the beloved community that King dreamed of and to usher in the commonwealth of God,” he said.
‘Hope over fear’
Mr Obama provided an assessment of the country’s standing and his vision for the future. “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real,” he said, addressing a crowd estimated at two million on the National Mall in front of the Capitol. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.”
He also told those assembled on the mall and those gathered around television sets that they had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” The Rev Albert Sampson, Pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago, has been among the masses on the National Mall before. He attended the 1963 rally where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and was a speaker at the Million Man March in 1995. This time, he had a ticket to what he believes has to be the biggest event so far, both in terms of the number of people present and the diversity of races and cultures represented.
He called President Obama’s address “an international message” with a personal touch. “His words were packaged to go around the world like a boomerang,” he said.
The idea that America will extend its hand if others unclench their fists was a powerful notion to this advocate of non-violence. “According to God, you’ll get more when you open your hand than you will with your fist closed,” the Rev Sampson said. “We’ve got to find other strategies for handling our differences. That’s one of the key things he was saying.”
Linda Green and Kathy Gilbert are United Methodist News Service news writers based in Nashville, Tennessee. Linda Bloom is a UMNS news writer based in New York.