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Ministers grapple with election’s spiritual message

on November 11, 2008


Nov. 6 — The Rev. Charley Hames, Jr., pastor of the Beebe Memorial Cathedral in North Oakland, kept candidate endorsements away from his pulpit during the election season. But one night after Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first African-American president, he gave an impassioned sermon that spoke to the enormity of the event.

“Many of us – whether we will admit it or not – were nervous, scared, frightened and fixed in anticipation and anxiety from yesterday’s election,” he told the crowd of 250 people gathered at the Telegraph Avenue church. “For the first time, we’ve seen young people and old together pay close attention to the political process. Many of my generation had cast it away as a process that does not work.”

For post-election analysis and punditry, there is the usual cadre of TV talking heads, newspaper columnists and radio personalities. But at North Oakland houses of worship, clergy are also considering the impact of events this week, offering different approaches to the practice of politics in the pulpit. Some grappled with the role of God in Obama’s victory. Others are addressing the duality of the Obama victory and the passage of Proposition 8, which prohibits gay marriage—or they are avoiding bringing up politics before their congregations.

The Rev. Dr. Charley Hames, Jr., of Beebe Memorial Cathedral

The Rev. Dr. Charley Hames, Jr., of Beebe Memorial Cathedral

Rabbi Steven Chester of Temple Sinai in North Oakland said he took pains not to endorse a candidate from the pulpit before the election, in keeping with law governing the temple’s non-profit status. Ballot initiatives are exempt from this restriction, however, and the Temple encouraged its members to vote “no” on Proposition 8, which eliminates the right of same-sex couples in California to marry. Chester incorporated the “No on 8” message in his Rosh Hashanah sermon during the Jewish High Holy Days in September.

Chester said he personally was exhilarated after Obama delivered his acceptance speech on Tuesday night. But his joy was tempered by the results of Prop. 8, which narrowly passed with 52% of the vote. He plans on writing about this mix of emotion in the temple’s bulletin and in the Piedmont Post newspaper.

“With the election of Barack Obama, this country has come of age,” Chester said. “But the state has not come of age with Prop. 8. So it’s bittersweet.”

Not all religious leaders believe that a sermon from the pulpit is the right place for a political message.

The interim pastor of the College Avenue Presbyterian Church said that out of respect his congregation, he won’t be addressing the election during his Sunday service. Instead, the Rev. Anthony Gamley will be talking about building a more vibrant church community.

“I personally don’t believe the pulpit or the church is the place for party politics, generally speaking,” Gamley said. Of course, he said, that doesn’t mean that something won’t happen “spur of the moment” during the service, especially since the Bible instructs people to pray for its leaders. “But it says we should pray for leaders of all nations, not just this one,” said Gamley, who originally hails from South Africa.

On an election-night party at the church, he said, members of both political parties came together to watch the results. “They managed to restrain themselves very well because politics can become very heated and I don’t believe the church is the place for that,” he said. “We should be talking about peace-making and justice and fair play.”

Beebe Memorial pastor Hames said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. paved the way for Obama, but that it was God who made it possible for Obama to ascend to the presidency.

“We’ve got to realize God sent us somebody by the name of Barack Hussein Obama,” Hames said. “I’m not going to compare Barack to Jesus because Barack ain’t Jesus. If he’s not doing what you want him to do in 5 months, don’t crucify him on a cross. He ain’t your Jesus. He’s just a brother who was ordained to be president at such as a time as this.”

He continued: “Barack was anointed for such a time as this when people had lost hope. He was anointed for a time like this and for those people who could remember signs on the door that said ‘colored’ and ‘white.’ He was anointed to put away racism and division and those things that keep us divided to move us to a more perfect union.”

In his office the next day, Hames reflected on the night’s celebration, as well as an event at Allen Temple Baptist Church held earlier in the day. At Allen Temple, he said, the majority of the attendees were female and older, women who could be his mother or grandmother.

“You could feel the electricity,” he said. “There was a sense that all the hell we went through—we’ve been redeemed. It was a moment of emancipation.”

Later that night, though, the celebration at Beebe Memorial was attended by a younger generation. “There was a different type of electricity,” said Hames. “It was the sense that ‘my vote counted. This process does work.”

Across generations, the pastor said, it was hard to understate the weight of this political moment. “It was,” said Hames, “a moment of epiphany.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||

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