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Obama meets with Black faith leaders

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President Obama briefly met last Tuesday with about 20 Black religious leaders, including representatives of the major African American denominations, in the second White House gathering in three months to discuss the needs of the Black community.

While the president has faced growing questions about whether he has done enough to help African Americans deal with the nation’s economic downturn, the ministers spent most of the 15 minutes they had with him in the White House Blue Room offering words of encouragement while urging Obama to offer more summer jobs to young people and select an African American to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy.

When the meeting broke up, the ministers surrounded Obama, placed their hands on his shoulders and prayed.

“We need to pray for the president, pray for his wisdom, pray for his courage and pray for his strength because these are rough times,” said John R. Bryant, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “I am always open and standing in the need for prayer,” Bryant recalled Obama replying to a question from another minister about whether prayer was acceptable.

The president met with the African American pastors just before he went into the East Room for the Easter breakfast that brought together a diverse group of Christian leaders ranging from Bill Hybels, senior pastor of the Willow Creek Church in Illinois, to televangelist Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston.

The African American leaders who met with the president included George C. Walker, senior bishop of the AME Zion Church, and William Graves, senior bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Also present were the presidents of the three largest Baptist denominations: the Rev. T. DeWitt Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; the Rev. Stephen John Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America; and the Rev. Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

The gathering was in many ways designed to help deflect criticism that the president has not been sensitive enough to African American concerns at a time when blacks have been hurt more than other communities by the lack of jobs and the difficulty in obtaining bank financing, among other issues.

While the president has not responded publicly to critics ranging from Congressional Black Caucus members to commentator Tavis Smiley, the meeting Tuesday was the clearest sign yet that Obama has heard them.

The preachers, for their part, have written an open letter to media outlets praising the job Obama has done and encouraging him to “stay the course.”

“President Obama has pursued policies that are crucial for our communities and the nation as a whole, and we cannot afford to lose courage and fortitude at this juncture,” reads the letter, which more than 30 ministers signed. “President Obama has fought for us – and we must fight for him. . . . We have been troubled by the trivial debates that have become more prominent in Washington and across the country, while at the same time our families are facing historic challenges.”

The fact that the meeting was welcomed by officials at the White House is a shift from Obama’s seeming detachment from the question of whether he should have a “Black agenda.” In the past, he has responded by saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and that his job “is to be president of the whole country.”

“It was helpful to meet with him,” said Smith, who cautioned that even though the president pledged support to what the church leaders are doing, he can do only so much. “It is not the responsibility of the president to set our agenda. We already have an agenda.”

The letter outlines Obama’s accomplishments on behalf of “the least of these,” citing changes in education policy, health care and financial regulation.

“We are in the mix here,” Vashti M. McKenzie, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said in an interview. “If you are talking about health care, you are talking about African Americans. If you talk about unemployment, African Americans are losing jobs disproportionately. Everybody’s hopes are high, but he inherited so many problems.”

Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, called the Tuesday gathering “a good meeting.”

The meeting was the second at the White House this year to discuss the needs of the black community. Two months ago, Obama sat down with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, National Urban League President Marc Morial and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who had requested the visit.

Afterward, the civil rights leaders said Obama had been willing to hear their ideas, and they restated their support for the administration. But in the days after, Smiley criticized the men for not putting more pressure on Obama to carve out a specific black agenda. And last month he hosted a forum in Chicago — attended by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and academics Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, among others — where a number of African American speakers said that Obama needs to do more for blacks.

But the only drama at the White House Tuesday came in the form of the gospel recounted by the president. “Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season. And I think of hanging – watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion. He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath,” the president said.

“’Father,’ He said, ‘into your hands I commit my spirit.’ ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior,” Obama said, “but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today. Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children.”

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