Written by The Rev. Robert Chase
It was months before the launch of his Presidential bid. Back in the spring of 2006, Senator Obama’s office was a quiet place when The Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and I arrived to see the junior Senator from Illinois. We were there to ask him to keynote the UCC’s biennial General Synod meeting in June of 2007 in Hartford, CT. There, 10,000 faithful would gather to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the denomination to which Barack Obama belonged.
It was one of those April days common to Washington, after the cherry blossoms had fallen, when the temperature seemed more like July than mid-spring. Rev. Thomas and I were early and we were asked to wait while the Senator completed some business on the Senate floor.
We shared the waiting room with one other—a solitary figure who was sitting on the sofa, trying to collect herself and sweating from the heat. She was muttering softly and it didn’t take long to realize that she was not fully in charge of her faculties. Elderly, white, possibly homeless, she struck a sad figure there in the halls of power. Barely functional, or so it seemed, she was clearly no high-priced lobbyist, represented no well-heeled interest group, promoted no influential demographic. She was a constituency of one, the epitome of powerlessness. Actually, she gave no indication that she even knew whose office she was in, or why she was there.
But then a remarkable thing happened. Not once, not twice. But four times. Four different members of Obama’s staff asked the unnamed woman if they could help. “Is there anything I can get for you?” “It sure is hot, would you like some water?” “Can I help you make a call?” Joshua DuBois, a legislative aid, who would become the campaign’s Director of Religious Affairs, got down on one knee so he could look in her eye, and spoke quietly to the woman. A few minutes later, Michael Strautmanis, Obama’s Chief Counsel at the time, asked if he could assist.
Four staffers—white and black, male and female, receptionist and Chief Counsel—inquired about the wellbeing of this lost and fragile soul. No cameras. No campaign slogans (indeed, there wasn’t a campaign yet). Just a genuine desire to help, with nothing in return. The woman refused all entreaties, seemingly content to just sit…and whisper to the voices in her head.
Obama came in, apologized for being late (he wasn’t) and we retreated into his office. Rev. Thomas and I made our pitch. He ultimately agreed and, fourteen months later, he would speak eloquently about the role of faith in public service. By then, he was deeply engaged in the campaign.
We had our twenty minute meeting and when it was time to leave, we returned to the waiting room just as one of the staffers was leaving with the woman, gently accompanying her to the elevator and chirpily talking about the weather and other matters important in the day-to-day lives of our nation’s lost and homeless. She had been there, out of the Washington heat, for the better part of an hour: a time of respite from the onslaught of her world.
Much has been made recently of Senator Obama’s “executive experience.” But, executive ability is demonstrated as much in the quality of those you hire and the tone you set for your administration, as in the size of your staff or the largesse of your budget.
We Americans have a short attention span during election seasons. Maybe the imploding economy or an unexpected international incident will cause challenges to Obama’s executive credentials to pale as November 4 draws near. But if they should linger in the minds of some, I offer this experienced as a counterweight. What we witnessed back then is indicative of someone who builds a staff, from top to bottom, with sensitivity to the neediest among us, to those without any power. I left Washington that day struck by the notion that perhaps the sense of service to that unnamed woman might someday become the model for our nation’s government.
The Rev. Robert Chase was Director of Communication of the United Church of Christ; he is currently the Founding Director of Intersections International, based in New York City.