Beginning and ending with the Bible, God and grace, Obama sounded a tone more reminiscent of a black preacher than president in his 40-minute eulogy Friday for the Charleston pastor who was gunned down in his church last week.
Obama brought the 5,500 people in the audience of a college gymnasium in South Carolina to their feet as he slowly sounded the first notes of “Amazing Grace” on his own. By the time he got to “sweet the sound” in the first line, the audience joined him, swaying and singing.
Obama, an occasional churchgoer at best, talked about faith, God’s grace and forgiveness woven in with themes about racism and gun control as he mourned Clementa Pinckney, 41, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church. He was one of nine people killed by a 21-year-old gunman with white supremacist ties.
The victims, ranging in age from young adults to senior citizens, were holding a Bible study when they were killed by the young white man they’d welcomed into their group in historic Charleston.
“They were still living by faith when they died,” said Obama, who didn’t refer to his own faith in his remarks. “They did not receive the things promised. They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”
The audience resembled a much-larger version of a congregation at a Sunday service, with most in church attire, some including white globes and elaborate hats.
“We want to thank the Reverend President,” the pastor who concluded the nearly five-hour-long service joked after Obama wrapped up “Amazing Grace.”
Pinckney, who Obama met on the campaign trail in 2007, was a religious man who the president noted was “a preacher by 13, a pastor by 18, a public servant by 23.”
In his remarks, Obama also recalled the history of the black church and the role it’s played during slavery and the underground railroad to freedom in the north and on through the civil rights movement and today.
He called Mother Emanuel, as Pinckney’s church is known “a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground...only to rise up again. A phoenix from these ashes.”