Your Turn: What my visit with president taught me about humanity

The door opened. Expressionless men in black suits and dark sunglasses pushed into the crowd to clear a path. And then he was before me, not on a TV screen, but in my church, the church founded by New England abolitionists almost 170 years ago. I called out, “Mr. President. I am the pastor here.”

In January of 2015 President Obama came to Lawrence to Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ — the church I pastored for 24 years — to visit our Head Start program, one of the oldest of the federally funded preschool programs for low-income families in the country. The president wanted to shine a spotlight on Head Start as one of the most proven government initiatives for lifting families out of poverty.

I was standing there in the scrum by the door waiting for a glimpse of the leader of the free world. Ever since Barack Obama came on the national stage, I found him to be an elegant human being who personified all the reasons I went into the ministry: to bring change, to bear the Light, to offer hope.

Butterflies swirled in my stomach.

Suddenly he was there.

When President Obama took my hand into his I did not expect a prayer request.

“Pastor, pray for me,” he said. How often have I heard someone’s plea for a prayer, whether from the raspy voice of a parishioner lying in an ICU bed, their body tethered by tubes, or from the weather-beaten face of a man clad in urine-soaked clothes at the sanctuary door?

This ask came from the lips of the president of the United States.

“Pastor, please pray for me and Michelle, my daughters Sasha and Malia, and our family dog.”

Seconds later, the president stepped into the opened door of a black limousine, and he was gone.

When I think back on that day, I cannot help but imagine how it would have been for the church’s 19th century abolitionists pastors if they could have looked down from above and seen the nation’s first African American president walk through the doors of the church whose red bricks were a monument to their conviction that slavery was an abomination in the eyes of God.

The most notable of these clergy was the Rev. Richard Cordley — Plymouth’s longest pastorate of 38 years — who matched his words with his deeds. In 1859 the Rev. Cordley and his wife Mary flagrantly flouted the Fugitive Slave Law- — a law that required escaped slaves to be returned to the slaver — by taking into their home a runaway slave named Lizzie. In their wildest dreams could they have ever imagined the descendants of slaves living in the White House?

I wonder now, when I think back on that January day seven years ago, if the moment was given to me, as an invitation, “am I prepared to be there for others?”

When the Cordleys’ moment came, when Lizzie came into their lives, they saw not a slave but a fellow human being, in need of care.

When Barack Obama stood before me, he became not the president but a vulnerable human in need of prayer.

The past is prologue. Looking back, can I also look ahead to the next moment? Am I prepared, regardless of who stands before me, to see in them their humanity?

— Peter Luckey, of Lawrence, is a United Church of Christ pastor.


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