Columbia faithful talk about Obama

Sunday, January 25, 2009 | 7:22 p.m. CST; updated 10:28 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 25, 2009
Rajini Tolani, left, and Santokh Singh offer prayers during the birth celebration of Guru Gobind Singh at the Shanthi Mandir Hindu Temple on Saturday.

COLUMBIA — Regardless of their political views, some people of faith in Columbia hope President Barack Obama will set a new tone for religious cooperation in America.

Like previous American presidents, Obama referenced religion in his inauguration speech but in a way that few others before him have. Obama spoke about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, believers and non-believers. He began his first full day in office with an interfaith prayer service, a gesture that many in the religious community of Columbia welcomed.


Korean First Presbyterian Church

Heyoung Yang, 30, compared the political situation in the United States to South Korea's. In both countries one party was in power for a number of years and then the balance of power shifted to the other party after recent elections. "It seems like America is making a fresh start. I think the Americans wanted change, too," Yang said.

Bora Lim, 23, had been to Korea during the past month and she said that a lot of people there were very surprised that America had elected a black president. "He'll probably bring something different to everyone," Lim said. She expressed hope that he would change the state of the economy.

Christina Chung, 8, said she watched the inauguration and despite not understanding all of the words, thought "his speeches are good. I think he'll make a good president because he's an educated man, he went to law school and stuff."

H.J. Lim, 70, said he voted for Obama “because I need something to change.”

“I think minorities would be encouraged to see him president, especially African- Americans.”

Having an African-American president “gives tremendous hope to young people.”

International Community Church

Sue Brennan, visiting from Minnesota: "He's pro-gay rights and pro-abortion but the joy of how America has come together around one person is amazing. He's a great testament of a decent person and good Christian man."

Congregation Beth Shalom

Brent Lowenberg: "There is a need to help fellow man and woman and work towards social justice. He has brought everybody to the table and will bring everybody together."

Debbie Shenker: "He has been outspoken in support of Israel and expect to continue. If an African-American can be president, then a woman can be president and a Jew can be president, and I don't think anybody was thinking that a few years ago."

Forum Christian Church

DJ Pittman: "I think this change will make us stronger. It will give us more motivation to reach out to people and tell them about the truth. As long as different faiths have the same goal, we will be unified. If it is different, then no one will change."

Josh Schack: "The (administration) change will not do much, we will still have our same priorities and goals. I think there will be a large reach out to bring different faiths together."


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Loise Wambuguh of International Community Church said the president’s campaign message of hope resonates with people of faith.

“We believe in God, and God is for everyone. I see a lot of hope for him bringing people together," Wambuguh said. "His message of hope tells us to be stronger in our faith.”

Myong Am Joung, 46, of the Korean First Presbyterian Church, said he hoped Obama would do something for the weak and oppressed. But above all, he said, he wished "the president would be a God-fearing man."

Kuljit Sandhu, who worshipped Saturday morning at Shanthi Mandir Hindu Temple in Columbia, found Obama’s diverse references to religion to be a uniting force.

“He said so many good things that appeal to everybody” regardless of where they’re from, Sandhu said. “I feel that Obama is a real Sikh because he appeals to everybody. He does not see any rich or poor, or coming from any background, and I really feel that’s what Sikhism stands for. So it doesn’t matter where you come from, he thinks that the people are all equal.”

Concerns about actions

Brenda Yamnitz, who attended Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, and others are wondering what Obama's future actions in office will be.

“I think he portrays a tone of cooperation, but when it gets down to it, will he listen to the will of the people?" she said. "I am concerned what his actions will be because of the promises he’s made to groups like Planned Parenthood.”

Obama has been criticized by some Christian groups for his support of abortion rights and sex education for children, two issues that generally are opposed by religious conservatives.

The Rev. Kwang R. Ko, 41, pastor of Korean First Presbyterian Church, said he was worried about Obama's policies regarding abortion and gay marriage.

"But in his way, I think he'll be a president of integrity,” he said. "So I have some hopes."

Before the service at Our Lady of Lourdes, Yamnitz was collecting signatures on postcards that would be mailed to Congress. The statement on the cards was in opposition to the Freedom of Choice Act, which would create a right to abortion, which the Catholic Church opposes.

She said she’s glad to see an African-American president, “just like I was excited to see John F. Kennedy, who was our nation’s first Catholic president.”

Yamnitz said she respects the president and will pray for him during his term. “And I hope he’ll listen to his conscience.”

Carlos Mendez, 40, of Columbia, sang in the choir of Sacred Heart Catholic Church during Spanish Mass with his friend María Mendez, 38, also of Columbia.

“I think it's going to be a very difficult year,” he said. "In maintaining a firm faith, we are helped to be more positive and that way we are helped to move forward.”

A hope for dialogue

"Normally when politicians talk about God, I don't trust them," Chunfeng Mao said. But when Obama speaks, "I actually believe him, and it deepens my faith."

Because so many faith groups were represented during the inauguration ceremony and prayer services, many religious people in Columbia expressed a sense of hope that interfaith dialogue will thrive in the coming year.

Although few religious leaders in Columbia made mention of President Obama in sermons and lessons this weekend, Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom did.

Feintuch ended Friday Shabbat services with a reading of Psalms 121, the same psalm read at the presidential inauguaration on Tuesday. He hopes Obama succeeds because "he is my president. If he succeeds, I succeed.  If he doesn’t succeed, I don’t succeed.”

Wambuguh said President Obama has “given us hope that America is again friendly to the rest of the world.”

Andrew Nam, 35, who worshipped at the Korean First Presbyterian Church, said the president is “a symbol of change and a new era. That shows the real true power of America, other nations can’t follow a minority.”

Nabihah Maqbool, 20, said the shift in administration is not “a panacea for the Muslim world or the world.”

Friday prayers at the mosque made no mention of Obama, she said, but the Islamic Center of Central Missouri did host various events on Monday in response to Obama’s call to service.

H.R. Chandrasekhar, who worshipped at Shanthi Mandir, said the president’s references to faith during the inauguration didn’t really catch his attention. Living in his native India, he was accustomed to living among lots of religious diversity. He said Obama’s broad religious reference was practical for a president.

“What he’s acknowledging is that there are people here who belong to all these religions,” Chandrasekhar said. “They all have to live together and feel welcome and accept it, so that’s the point he’s making. And that’s the way it should be.”

Alicia Swartz, Sarah Morris, Matthew Reinig, Gregg Johnson, Jason Scott,
April Choi, Christine Martinez, Beverly Rivera, Anton Berkovich and Amy
Brachmann contributed to this report.

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