A Great Testimony: One Pastor Looks at Faith, Leadership, and an America Looking For Hope on the Eve of Barack Obama’s Presidency

The following interview was conducted in November 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with the Reverend John Roberts of Edwardsville, Illinois, a pastor at Eden Church, and a former reserve solider who served in the Gulf War.

Let’s start by telling how you found your way to be pastor of your church.

I’m from Lexington, North Carolina, which is close to Charlotte/Winston-Salem in the Piedmont area. I served Chedrick’s Grove United Church of Christ for twelve years in Lexington, and I moved here about a year ago. I happened to know a pastor who knew somebody who formerly served this church, in Edwardsville, Illinois. They said this church was in a time of transition, and looking for a senior pastor. And he came up and to me one day and in the grocery store, and he said this church was a good fit, and for me to think about it.

I really wasn’t considering moving. I was happy at the church I was at. Closer to family. After some conversations with my wife about looking at this as a possibility we were finally in agreement and just see what happens. I figured somewhere along the way they would weed me out of the process. But they didn’t. They were more and more interested in me an a candidate. So they called us we decided to move to Illinois.

Did you always want to follow this path?

I grew up in the church, and spent most of my time there. Sunday school, worship, I was in the youth group. But when I was in high school I really wanted to be in the military. I enlisted in the Marine Corps. The Reserves, and then went off to college. During that time I actually went to Officer Candidate School, intent on becoming commissioned as a Second Lieutenant after I graduated I served in the reserves for six years, and was activated for the Gulf War—Desert Storm/Desert Storm— and spent five months over in Saudi Arabia. I really enjoyed the military but when I came back I really started to wrestle with what kind of direction my life needed to go in. Was God leading me in a certain way, contrary to what I had been in the military? After several people recommended that I consider ministry, I prayed about it and, talking to my pastor about it, I decided to leave the military. Not to go in as an officer when I graduated. I would just finish out my six-year contract and then go to the seminary. I came here for seminary, in St. Louis, and then went back to the church in Lexington. I served there twelve years.

Tell me about Eden, this church.

We are one of the larger United Church of Christ churches in this conference. We have about 2,400 on a given Sunday. We have contemporary as well as traditional music at our services, so we have three different worship services that we offer. And I would say that we are a typical main-line congregation: blended, made up of people coming at it from different perspectives and ideas about who God is, and what it means to be a Christian. I would say probably there are some affluent members here, but yet it’s got its roots back in the farming community, so we’ve farmers here and so forth. It’s an eclectic blend of white-collar and blue-collar families. So far they seem to mesh and fit pretty well together.

It can’t always be easy, being the leader of a church

No, not always. But I like challenges, and I like people, and I feel like I make a difference in the work I do. It keeps me going and keeps me motivated.

Has a church member ever come to seek advice, like on the election? On issues or on how to vote?

Actually no they didn’t. In all of my ministry I’ve never had anyone come to me and ask me about how I feel about candidates. People know how I feel about certain positions, like pro-like and stuff like that, but I don’t speak about that very publicly from the pulpit. It’s just in one-on-one conversation. But I’ve never really had anyone come to me and say, “How should I consider voting for a candidate?” I do get forwarded emails about such-and-such candidate, and I usually just delete them. I never try to get caught up in the partisanship—for good reason. I’m sure we have both Republicans and Democrats in the church, and was every other mix of people in the middle. And I’m a pastor to everybody. So I don’t want to alienate people from me because of who I choose to vote for or what I support.

Now, saying that, if somebody asked me one-on-one, I wouldn’t avoid the question. But I don’t initiate conversations, so nobody really approached me.

One thing somebody asked me though, was having to do with [former Obama pastor] Jeremiah Wright. Because he is a United Church of Christ minister, and we are a United Church of Christ church. And the question was about the pastor, not about Barack Obama. It was about Wright being a United Church of Christ minister. And I of course affirmed that yes he was. And then the follow up question was, “How can he say those type of things I hear in the news?” And that would lead me to explain our policy, about how we’re organized as a denomination. There’s a lot of autonomy but also freedom from church to church. For example, I might not like what the pastor in Collinsville is saying, but I give him the freedom to say it. And vice versa. It was just an opportunity to explain a bit about how our denomination works, and how you can have differing voices inside the church when it comes to political and social issues.

Can I ask you what you thought of the results of the election, or some thoughts you might have had during the election?

My theological lens, as a person that believes in a personal God who’s the supreme being of universe, is that the Bible teaches—and I believe rightly so—that when things happen, they happen for a purpose and reason. And when it comes to a Christian’s relationship to you political superiors, there are clear commands in the Scripture to honor those in authority and submit to them. Respect them, pray for them. This is written at the time of the New Testament when those of authority, the Roman emperors, were feeding Christians to the lions. It wasn’t just people that you didn’t like their political slant.

                                                     Pastor John Roberts

I came into the election with the firm belief that whatever happened, God had his hand on it. And it wasn’t a hand-wringing, oh-my-gosh-it’s-the-end-of-the-world thing. I also made a commitment that, as a person who believes and has a conscience about about certain issues, I will support whoever is elected as best I can, In the areas I think they’re going in the wrong direction I’ll speak up, but I’ll do it with love and respect. So I did not vote for Obama, but I already figured he was going to win. There was just so much energy and momentum about him. And in one sense I’m very happy our country has elected the first black president. I think that’s an incredible step in racial issues, and I’m very thankful for that. And I wish the president well and I will be praying for him. I just have concerns on some moral issues, the right to life issue. I disagree with Obama’s positions on that, so in those areas I will continue to advocate and see what unfolds.

Going back to the military side of it, you reminded me of the idea that no matter the commanding officer you still salute. It’s kind of what I’m hearing.

Right. And I have great respect for him too. I think he’s a great testimony, personally. I’ve heard him speak. Our General Senate, which is our national body, held their 2007 meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, and Barack Obama was one of the key-note speakers. I was very impressed with the articulation for his own personal faith. I think he has a good head on his shoulders, and obviously very gifted at connecting to and encouraging people. And I think our country needs that. We’re in an incredible tail-spin, economically. There’s a lack of hope there, and I think rightly, so people are looking for him to step up and provide some leadership.

What place does God have in a political conversation?

That’s a very good question. I would say, historically, in the light of our country’s—I mean, there was a time when pastors spoke very openly from the pulpit about national matters. The early days, in the founding of our country, there seemed to be a lot of religious principles and concepts that under-girded a lot of political movement. And I think they still do.

For example, on the issue of abortion, since we talked about pro-life—I think issue of when does life begin, and what gives life value, those are incredibly theological questions. I mean, I know not everyone in society starts their discussion about the value of human life with a belief in God, but the church certainly has that perspective. And it needs to be involved in that conversation and at the table. The church, in my mind, also serves—or should serve— as a sense of the conscience of the culture. And that is we should speak to issues of justice, or concerns about the poor and the marginalized. There’s a place for us to advocate for those that don’t have a voice. I don’t have a problem with ministers speaking about matters to their congregations.

I do think there is a tendency to oversimplify. I spoke to a lady who’s not in my church, but came up to me and offered some Republican campaign signs. I asked her why she thought I was a Republican . And her answer was, “Well, you’re a Christian.” And I think that’s awfully simplistic. I know there are people of very devout faith in both political parties. I do think there is a cultural bias that equates good Christian faith with putting an “R” behind your name. I have a problem with that.

Where it comes from, maybe, is that traditionally the Republican party has a pro-life platform, and the person I spoke to, as an Evangelical pro-life Christian that was very pro-life, so from that perspective she would say the Republican party probably lines up better with her beliefs of morality than things the Democratic party has done.

Where do you see God in the world today?

Why everywhere. God’s at work all around the world. Sometimes we’re myopic enough to think we can limit where God’s at work to what we can see.

People are coming to faith in him; societies are being transformed. I see God—to me, personally, a lot of times it’s more of a hidden thing. It’s not like with a big megaphone, “Look, here’s where God is.” It’s really a quiet thing, like seeing live’s being redeemed. Marriages being helped, kids being rescued from destructive lifestyles. I’ve got family members that walked away from drugs and alcohol, and are now people of great faith. I see God working in their lives, and in their ability to turn their courses to begin living a profitable, healthy, and productive life.

During this little bit of harder time, economically, do you see a shift in the mood of the church, or in attendance?

It’s hard to say right now. Our attendance has held about the same. Our contributions have dropped a little bit. Things will probably trend more downward in that area, because I know a couple of our individual members are retired GM auto workers, and with what’s going on currently [with the failing auto industry] it will affect them, their pension and so forth.

One person who’s been retired for a while said that he’s had to start looking for a job, in case his pension shrinks dramatically and he’s not able to live on it. So economically there is some angst, but this is very much a celebratory time in the life of the church. For example, we are doing a concert tonight and tomorrow called Raise the Praise. At the dress rehearsal last night there were sixty people in the choir, very worshipful, very focused on the Lord. So I do think there is a different mood, but the congregation has a sense that God’s got a hand in all of it and God will see them through.

What do you do to relax where you’re not here?

When I’m not here… I have three children. I play with them. I read. I walk my dog. I play on the PlayStation with my kids. Those are the kinds of things I do to relax.

                           Eden United Church of Christ, Edwardsville, IL

A hypothetical question I heard that is interesting: what might happen if Jesus came for the first time today?

What you do you mean if he came for the first time? If he didn’t come before? Oh gosh. Well, if he hadn’t come before the world would be a whole lot different than it is now.

Well, assuming that his mission would be the same thing, I would say that you would see a person preaching about the kingdom of God, having compassion on the multitudes, reaching out to the outcasts of society. Angering the religious leadership that think they’ve got God figured out.

You’d see the power of God demonstrated in probably the same response: rejection by those who would be his own people. His coming was so much bigger plan of redemption, and part of that is his own rejection by his people. So I would say you would probably have the same thing happen today.

What role do other religions play in the world?

I would assume they play the same role as Christianity does. They offer meaning to people. They offer a sense of the transcendent, a belief that there’s a purpose to life beyond themselves. And answer to suffering and pain, why we hurt.

Every religion has to attempt the create a worldview as to how we got here, and where we’re going. What’s my life all about? In one degree or another the other religions do that. They offer moral instruction, giving you a sense of the bigger picture and how you fit into it.

Obama has been, and still is, called a Muslim by some. Why do you think this is?

Well, because of his father, I would say. He was Kenyan, and I’m assuming he was a Muslim. And there was something about him living in Southeast Asia, maybe going to a madrasa there, which is a Muslim school.

I never brought that up. A couple of times I would get an email from somebody—“Obama’s a Muslim!” I would go to a website, like TruthorFiction.com. Snopes was another. So I would email the person back what I found. He’s not a Muslim. It’s an untruth. I knew that he wasn’t because he went to United Church of Christ. But I wanted something objective to let people know this is not a factual matter.

And I would do that not just with him, but anytime somebody would forward a story or something. I’ll check it out and see if it’s true or not. You know, “James Dobson needs your help because Christian radio’s going to be taken off the airwaves.” And most of those things are lies, a circulation of things not true, but people don’t bother to find the facts. So that’s what I would do, in hopes they would be more thoughtful in the future before sending things along to people.

You said you served during the Persian Gulf War. What memories stick with you?

I was in an infantry reserve unit. I was a field operator, and I was activated right before Thanksgiving [of 1990]. And so I went home, had a Thanksgiving with my family, and then reported with my reserve unit to Camp Lajune. And then on January first we went to Saudi Arabia. It was cold. It wasn’t hot like you would think the desert would be. There were times when there was not a lot to do. I really expected it to be a longer war. It ended a lot quicker than I imagined.

The experience of being over there was eye-opening. The people of the Bible, that’s their origins, you know? Came from Iraq. The Middle East made me more aware of their cultural experiences and their background. I mean, I enjoyed the experience. I didn’t see combat. Because the ground war ended so quickly my unit only guarded prisoners and ammunition supply points. So it wasn’t like what you’re reading or hearing about it Afghanistan and Iraq.

I’m glad to have gone and served my country. In fact I was really frustrated that, earlier, several people I knew who were being activated were married with kids, and here I was single, and really willing to go. I felt like they had more to give up than I did, to go and serve. But it wasn’t a traumatic experience for me. It was eye-opening, and I’m very thankful for that opportunity to be there. I remember coming home and reading in the newspaper about the number of people who were killed in the war, and the number of Iraqi soldiers that surrendered. It was just mind-blowing how big a number that was. Even though I didn’t directly pull the trigger, that I was a part of the military arm that did that kind of damage…

                           Highway 80 in Kuwait, April 1991

I did go to into Kuwait twice, just to take pictures and look around. I saw the Highway of Death, where all of these Iraqi soldiers had stolen people’s cars who were driving north, out our Kuwait and into Iraq. They were caught and bombed in the street, so there were just hundreds of cars turned upside down, pushed off the side of the road. And that was eye-opening, to know there were people on the receiving end of that.

You’ve seen all this, and said you were also more sensitive to Middle Eastern culture when you were there as a soldier. What perspective does that give you for the present?

From what I gather, the military tries very hard to be respectful of the locals customs and cultures, The want—most of them—to get out, and leave Iraqis to deal with their own matters, or to leave the Afghanistan people with their own matters. I think the military, it’s mission, is to kill and destroy. And that mission’s there, but it also has an arm of trying to be respectful of people.

And that’s a double-edged sword. I can understand that creates a love/hate relationship with the Iraqi people. I’m sure some of them are thankful that their lives as a little bit better, but others are probably terribly wounded, physically or psychologically, by our violence. The ground war went so quickly, and then the real war—trying to guard people—there’s all this violence back and forth. I can see why the Iraqi people would be angry at us for creating this environment.

I actually thought about going into the Navy as a chaplain back in the buildup of the current war. I really wrestled with it. I wanted to serve my country. I really appreciate those people that make that sacrifice. The big reason I didn’t is I have three kids now, and the idea of being deployed a year at a time, and not seeing them, was just too hard. If I was still single it would be one thing, but I don’t want sound like like I’m dump that all on my wife.

What pages of your Bible are most worn?

Right now it’s the Gospel of Mark. We’ve been studying the life of Jesus since last September. So it’s been over a year, and Mark will finally be finished this Sunday. I’ve been dissecting the book for what I want to say to the congregation about Jesus.

Why Mark?

Well, when I came to this church it had gone through a period of division. The best way, I felt, for the church to experience unity is to reconnect themselves to the head of the church. And Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Even out mission statement says “we’re a family rooted in Christ.” And I felt it we’re going to follow Jesus we need to follow the Jesus of the Bible, and know who he is and what’s written about him. So I picked Mark because it’s really the shortest of the Gospels. And I did not want to spend a long time—I wanted to be thorough enough that people would really walk away saying, “Ah, this is who Jesus was. This is why he did what he did. This is why he died on the cross. This is why the church claims he was raised from the dead.” And I picked it because the story moved along a bit more quickly. I don’t want to spend two or three years studying a book that was a little longer or more in depth.

President-elect Obama is about to be the leader of the country, and you find yourself the leader of a church. What makes a good leader?

An openness to hear different ideas. To understand that there is some wisdom in the different voices out there, whether about economic issues or how to relate to foreign countries. But ultimately a leader has to be decisive, to make a decision and stick with it. If the consequences are difficult, but it’s the right thing to do, you still do it. I think that’s what makes a good leader.

If you could give some advice to Obama what would it be?

I guess if I had to offer any advice to Obama it would be to seek to be humble. He’s been given a tremendous privilege, and I think there are a lot of people who look to him to do some incredible things. Especially from a Christian perspective, God tends to honor those who are humble. Those that are proud end up coming down and crashing and burning, so to speak. So I would challenge him to do what he needs to do to remain humble before God and humble before other people.

When people speak to him and consider him almost a… ‘messiah’— and a couple of people have used that term to describe him. One of things that he really needs to do is distance himself from that remind people that, if anything gets done, it’s only because of God. And we should remain humble say thanks to God, and not assume we’re not doing this on our own strength.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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