I first heard the name Barack Obama in the summer of 2004 over a half-pound burger and fries on Capitol Hill. I was putting in long hours as a legislative intern for a wily member of Congress between two years of graduate school at Princeton, where I was studying public policy. The pay was meager - enough for gas for my beat-up Chevy Blazer and a tiny Craigslist apartment with two guys and a cat. But it was good to be in Washington and have a few months to wrestle with what in the world I was going to do with the rest of my life.
But by the time my internship was ending in late July, I wasn't any closer to figuring things out. I knew I loved Christ - I was an associate pastor at a small Pentecostal church back home - and wanted my career to be tied to my faith. I also knew I wanted to help people who were struggling; my grandmother was active in the civil rights movement, and my parents made sure that working for justice and mercy was in my bones. And finally, I knew that I had some serious student loans to pay back. The hard part was figuring out how to balance all three.
Late one day, July 27 to be exact, I walked a couple of blocks to my favorite neighborhood dive, a local spot named the Hawk 'n' Dove. There was always a happy hour special going on at the Hawk, and they showed more Red Sox games than Yankees - which, since I'm a Sox fan, was a good thing in my book.
I settled in to enjoy my burger when the place got quiet on me - and the Hawk 'n' Dove was never quiet. A man was on television, an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. And this guy was giving quite a speech.
I put my food down and listened. The state senator touched on many themes I loved - themes of justice, of fighting for the vulnerable and sick, of deep love for my country. And then he said, almost out of nowhere: "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. ... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
"We worship an awesome God."
That line hit me in the gut. This young state senator had reminded me of the songs I had sung at Bible camps growing up, arms upraised: "Our God Is An Awesome God." He reminded me of long nights, struggles with homelessness and poverty and desperation that I had experienced over the years, and the power of pure worship to shout down life's loudest dins. He reminded me that the grace I had felt since I became a Christian - felt so fully and so purely - was not relegated to one party or another, to a red state or a blue state, but instead was available to all who sought it. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states."
I had to work for this guy.
And so, with no inside connections, I set about doing just that. Fortunately for me, Obama and the people around him - folks like Pete Rouse, Valerie Jarrett, Denis McDonough, Melody Barnes, Michael Strautmanis, and Chris Lu - valued results more than reputation, and saw the need to engage people of faith in the public square. So they took a shot on me. I am grateful they did, because it has been an amazing ride ever since.
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