MICHELLE OBAMA has described how the prayers of millions of Americans sustained her during her years in the White House.
In her autobiography, Becoming, published this month, she writes about living with the threat of violence, conscious that her husband’s presidency produced “a reactionary sense of fear and resentment”. On one occasion, a man fired a semi-automatic rifle at the White House, hitting the window of a room in which she sometimes had tea.
“‘We’re praying nobody hurts you,’ people used to say, clasping my hand at campaign events,” she recalls. “I’d heard it from people of all races, all backgrounds, all ages — a reminder of the goodness and generosity that existed in our country. ‘We pray for you and your family every day.’
“I kept their words with me. I felt the protection of those millions of decent people who prayed for our safety.”
She and her husband “relied on our personal faith as well,” she writes. They went to church “only rarely” during their time in the White House, “mostly because it had become such a spectacle, involving reporters’ shouting questions as we walked in to worship.”
The book describes the scrutiny engendered by the discovery that the Revd Dr Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Trinity Church, Chicago, where they had worshipped, had preached an “angry and inflammatory sermon . . . regarding the treatment of blacks in our country”.
The press highlighted “the worst and most paranoid parts of the man who’d married us and baptised our children,” she writes.
The incident, and the attempt by opponents to “use faith as a weapon”, had a far-reaching impact: the couple decided to “exercise our faith privately and at home, including praying each night before dinner and organising a few sessions of Sunday school at the White House for our daughters”.
They did not join a church in Washington, “because we didn’t want to subject another congregation to the kind of bad-faith attacks that had rained down on Trinity, our church in Chicago. It was a sacrifice, though. I missed the warmth of a spiritual community. Every night, I’d look over and see Barack lying with his eyes closed on the other side of the bed, quietly saying his prayers.”
The part played by the Church in black communities is highlighted at several points in the book. Mrs Obama grew up living above the home of her great-aunt Robbie, who directed the choir at the local church, “where we were not quite regulars at Sunday school”. Her middle name is that of her grandmother, “a sweet, soft-spoken woman and devout Christian named LaVaughn”, and one of her best friends at high school was Sanita Jackson, a daughter of the Revd Jesse Jackson.
She describes her husband’s grass-roots work with churches in Chicago as a community organiser: a man who had “spent time in the barbershops, barbecue joints, and Bible-thumping black parishes of the far South Side.” She recalls how he led a workshop at a black parish in Roseland with “well-intentioned, community-minded women”, comparing his oratory to that of a preacher.
“Even they, he said — a tiny group inside a small church, in what felt like a forgotten neighbourhood — could build real political power.”
The part played by the First Lady in consoling people is also highlighted, during a period in which mass-shootings moved her husband to tears.
Recalling the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, in which nine people were killed (News, 19 June 2015), she writes: “Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation. . . Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever.”
But her optimism remains “a form of faith”, she concludes. “Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to get go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.”
Becoming is published by Penguin at £25.