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Obamas get direct appeal to join congregation ; Family's search for church goes on

Since President Obama's arrival in town two years ago, many local religious leaders have wondered when, or if, the country's first African-American first family might choose a new church home. On Sunday, as the Obamas worshipped in the storied Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church a few blocks from the White House, a not-so-subtle appeal came directly from the pulpit.

Looking at Michelle Obama, the Rev. Marie Braxton declared: "It would be something if you joined our church, and I got to be your pastor and you got to be my girlfriend. And Mr. President, we would find something for you to do."

The president and his family were full participants for more than two hours, singing, standing, even enduring church announcements and the passing of the collection plates. But it seemed the family remained noncommittal Sunday on the question of joining.

"The first family has been delighted to visit many Washington area congregations and will continue to worship with churches around the city," Kevin Lewis, a White House spokesman, wrote in an e-mail Sunday when asked about the status of the church search.

"We will be sure to confirm when they have made a decision on a church home," Lewis added.

The Obamas' appearance in Metropolitan Church helped mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. It was the president's fourth visit in the past two years to a historically black congregation in the capital.

A year ago, on the eve of the King holiday, Obama delivered remarks in the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, where King preached in the early days of the civil rights movement. Obama reflected on King's legacy and the difficulties facing black Americans.

On Sunday, Obama did not make a speech. Instead, his visit offered a reminder of his complicated relationship with the black church community, a key hub of political and social activism within the president's most loyal base of support.

The question of whether the Obamas might join a new church has been closely watched by clergy and religious leaders across the country ever since Obama's politically charged break in 2008 from Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ amid a controversy over sermons by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Metropolitan AME, founded in 1838, was one of several in the area that had reached out to the White House in the administration's early days in hopes that the country's first black president and his family might become regular members.

The White House said that over the past two years Obama's church attendance included multiple visits to Evergreen Chapel at Camp David and St. John's Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House. He has also visited Allen Chapel AME Church and the 19th Street Baptist Church, both historically black churches.

On Sunday, the Metropolitan congregation clearly tried to make the Obamas feel at home.

At one point, the hundreds of worshippers joined together to sing "Happy birthday" to the first lady, who turned 47 Monday.

"I gave the first lady a CD of church hymns for her birthday because in this church we try to make people feel welcomed," said Braxton, whose husband, the Rev. Ronald Braxton, is the church pastor. "The gift came from my heart."

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