A Seventh-day Adventist Church official asked U.S. President Barack Obama at a White House breakfast on Tuesday to keep religious freedom at the forefront of his administration’s foreign policy.
Obama replied to Dwayne O. Leslie, director of legislative affairs at the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, that he intended to defend the rights of all believers.
The exchange took place at the White House’s Easter prayer breakfast, an annual event where Obama spoke about Jesus’ resurrection and Christian musician Amy Grant sang while a group of about 150 religious leaders and politicians ate from a buffet of egg soufflé, smoked salmon, and fruit.
The Easter prayer breakfast is more intimate than the White House’s National Prayer Breakfast, which gathers about 3,500 people from 100 countries every February. The National Prayer Breakfast made headlines in 2013 when the speaker, Ben Carson, an Adventist and former neurosurgeon, criticized Obama’s policies.
For Leslie, the Easter breakfast provided a chance to represent the Seventh-day Adventist Church before a powerful group of decision-makers and to build relationships with them.
“There are very few occasions when you have that concentration of religious and political leaders,” Leslie said in an interview after the breakfast.
He said he saw himself as an ambassador between the church and the political elite.
“This is a way to reach folks whom we are not typically reaching,” he said in his office at the General Conference’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s a way to interact with high-level political leaders and tell them about the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
When Obama stopped by Leslie’s table at the breakfast, Leslie thanked him for identifying religious freedom as a key U.S. foreign policy objective during a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last year. Obama, who was facing accusations of paying insufficient attention to religious freedom at the time, gave a robust speech that voiced concerns about the situation in the Middle East and countries such as China, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Leslie asked Obama to continue to keep religious freedom as a priority, and Obama indicated that he would, Leslie said.
Religious freedom has been a primary issue for the Seventh-day Adventist Church since its origins in the mid-1800s, and most recently Adventist Church president Ted N.C. Wilson raised it during a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday.
Leslie found that a fellow guest at his breakfast table, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, was well-aware of the Adventist Church through his hometown, Takoma Park, Maryland. The church has a significant presence in Takoma Park, home to Washington Adventist Hospital, Washington Adventist University, and the Sligo Adventist Church. The General Conference and Review and Herald publishing house were based in the city for decades.
“It’s nice when people are familiar with some of the work that we have done in the community and you can represent the church,” Leslie said.
He said that a guest at last year’s Easter breakfast recognized the Adventist Church in connection with research showing that its U.S. members live a decade longer than the average American.
“Oh yeah, I just read about you guys. You guys live longer than anyone else,” the guest said when Leslie introduced himself. “How can I learn more? Whatever you guys are doing is obviously working.”
Leslie later sent some information to the guest.
Leslie said such encounters were part of the reason that he has attended the last three Easter breakfasts as well as other functions in Washington.
He said it also was helpful to become acquainted with people who could provide assistance in delicate situations. He said contacts at the State Department, for example, have used quiet diplomacy to help the church resolve several issues in Africa.
“When our church is under attack in various areas of the world, it’s nice to know that I can call some of these people,” Leslie said.
Among the other guests at the two-hour breakfast was Adventist Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, and Al Sharpton, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist. Religious leaders represented the Roman Catholic Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and others.
Amy Grant, the first Christian artist with an album to go platinum in 1982, opened the event by singing “Thy Word” accompanied by guitar.
Obama told the guests that he wasn’t a preacher but gratefully remembered Jesus’ “extraordinary gift of salvation” on the Easter holiday.
"We try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light," Obama said. “And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice, on Easter we can't lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday. The story keeps on going. On Sunday comes the glorious resurrection of our Savior.”
Obama also expressed appreciation to the religious leaders for their churches’ work.
“I want to thank everybody here for the wonderful work that you do all across the country with your remarkable ministries,” he said.