FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- While her husband rallied more than 10,000 people sixty miles away in Raleigh, Michelle Obama swooped into Fayetteville on Wednesday to address the General Baptist State Convention. It was an invitation-only affair, with only about 500 people in attendance -- a seemingly modest event given that the Obama campaign is battling to maintain its minuscule lead in North Carolina.
But this was not an ordinary crowd, nor an ordinary message. Michelle Obama was speaking literally to the choir: pastors and congregation leaders in Baptist parishes across the state. If Obama is to win, the campaign is depending on this crowd--and others--to carry the message that Barack is "for real" and the Obamas are true to their Christian, black, and American heritages.
From the beginning, the event felt more like a religious service than a political rally. Mercedes, Lexuses, and white church vans backed up traffic on a two-lane road while we waited for the parking lot to open. When the crowd finally poured out of their cars, it looked like the Harlem Renaissance come to life: African-American men and women in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, most of them dressed in their Sunday best.
There were hats, of course--feathered, sequined, tiered, brimmed, bowed, bedecked, and bedazzled. There were also gloves (white on the men opening the door; black on the women raising their hand in blessing), heels, colored stockings, metallic ties, pin-striped suits, wingtip shoes, and one rabbit fur shrug. The crowd moved slowly into the auditorium, took their seats, and after one affirmation that there were people here who loved Jesus Christ, proceeded to wait more than two hours for the woman they hope will be First Lady.
To pass the time, audience members stood up and spontaneously led the crowd in chants and song. "Give me an M," said a disembodied female voice from the front. The audience gave it to her, and the dozen letters after to spell "Michelle Obama."
Another man and woman had a sing-off to a hymn I didn't know. A contralto from the bleachers began "We Shall Overcome." The tone in the auditorium turned temporarily sober--it was astonishing to think that for an audience who had lived through the Civil Rights era, overcoming seemed now within reach.
When Michelle Obama finally took the stage, she reflected the prayerful mood of the room--pulled between faith and doubt, but leaning toward faith. "God is good!" she began, and the audience clapped vigorously.
Michelle Obama's stump speech of the last few weeks has focused on her husband's biography and assuring audiences that they can trust him. For the Baptist Convention, she embroidered it with more references to God and Christianity than I'd heard before. Even her voice dropped to something closer to the whispered, humble tone of the supplicant. Whereas her husband sometimes channels the call-and-response rhythms of African-American churches, Michelle sounded less like the preacher and more like the woman in the middle pew, holding out hope.
"I come here today as a Christian," she told the crowd, to wild applause.
She spoke of teaching their daughters ("God's greatest gift to Barack and me and the sign of His grace") the same values that the audience likely taught their children and grandchildren--right from wrong, dignity and respect, the belief that a better world is possible, that "we are all God's children."
As for the decision to run for president--and for the audience's tacit promise that they would help carry the Obama torch--Michelle cited the Gospel of Luke: To whom much is given, much is expected. "We all have to use our gifts to make the world more prosperous and more just," she said. "Don't we deserve policies that reflect our values? Reflect that we're all in this together?"
Yet, if God and religion were more explicitly on display, then the subtext of race and racial struggle were still more suggested than addressed.
"Barack and I know we've only made it this far because of what's come before us," Michelle said, seemingly alluding to a history of equal rights activism. She nodded to Lucretia Mott, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., people who have worked for racial justice.
In imploring the audience to do everything they could in the next few days to get out the vote for Obama, she said, "I don't want to think about what might've been. We've done that too much in our lifetime."
Throughout rallies and political events across the country this year, I've noticed that as frank as our conversations about race, gender, and religion have become, there are still some things we can't say. On Wednesday, Michelle Obama came the closest I've heard at least to describing the shape of what surrounds these ideas--both the fear and the hope of what electing a man from the African-American community could mean.
"We've been lifted by your prayers for our safety and success," she said, stopping well short of confronting many people's concern that Obama might be killed. But the thought was there, and she reiterated it again at the end, along with a call to act in courage and confidence.
"My family believes in the power of prayer," she concluded. "Please continue to hold Barack and me and our girls in your prayers. At times like these, I remember what Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount: 'You are the light of the world.' Don't hide it; let it shine for all to see. Open your hearts and raise your voices. This time is our time. We will let our light shine. We will bring change to the country we love."