April 4, 2010 — -- The Obamas celebrated Easter Sunday at the Allen Chapel AME Church in a southeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood recently rocked by tragedy.
Church leaders were gratified to see the president visit their congregation, which is still reeling from last week's drive-by shooting that left four teenagers dead, just blocks from the historically black church.
"His coming shows that he cares about people. He cares about this community. I think that's something we can build upon," Allen Chapel's senior pastor, the Rev. Michael Bell told ABC News.
The president was joined by his wife Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson.
Mayor Adriane Fenty and D.C. councilmen and former Mayor Marion Barry were also in attendance.
"This is very, very special," said church member Kelle Lewis, "It was really nice seeing the first lady, her kids, her mom."
Still, not everyone was happy to see all the VIPs. Worshippers were forced to wait in long lines and go through metal detectors, while latecomers were turned away for security reasons. Several were upset about missing holiday services, but preferred not to comment.
When President Obama first moved to Washington, D.C., he said his family would explore local churches before joining one. He now says the family will remain without a church because their attendance would be too intrusive.
"We've decided for now ... not to join a single church. The reason is because Michelle and I have realized we are very disruptive to services," Obama told NBC News last month. "Now, there are a whole bunch of churches who would say it's OK, but [not] when every other member of the congregation has to be 'magged' every time you attend," Obama said about the security screening process.
Allen Chapel Church member Marcella Goodie said celebrating Easter with the first family was "a blast" but agreed their weekly attendance could be challenging.
"It would be a little too overwhelming because some people would not be coming for the Word. They would just be coming for him. And it would be a bit much," she said.
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith says the president is not alone in keeping his worship private.
"You come here with all kinds of expectations, including the naïve belief that you will be able to go to church every Sunday, just as you always have. And you discover pretty quickly, perhaps your dismay, that nothing is the way it was," Smith said.
Obama Family Attends Easter Services
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush never formally joined churches in Washington. Rather than go out into the city, Richard Nixon brought church to the White House with Sunday services in the East Room.
Absent traditional services, the president has found a high tech spiritual ritual. He receives a daily devotional on his blackberry.
"The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing," said Pastor Derrick Harkins of 19th St Baptist Church, where the Obamas attended services in January. "So if modern technology can help us do that than I'm certainly all for it."