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Isle church honored by Obama's visit

A pastor reminds the president-elect that he went to Sunday school at First Unitarian

By Pat Gee

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 06, 2009

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The Rev. Mike Young managed to keep a secret for three weeks: President-elect Barack Obama would be honoring his beloved grandmother at Young's church in Nuuanu.

Young, pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, could only tell his wife and a handful of church administrators that a small, private service was planned for Madelyn Payne Dunham on Dec. 23.

"It was very hard to keep this secret. ... The fun part was working with the Secret Service folk to make it happen," he said.

The woman who helped raise Obama died two days before he was elected president in November.

Young said he was not overly surprised or nervous, "just excited," when he first got a call from Borthwick Mortuary three weeks before the service was to be held.

It all made sense.

Young said Obama's book "Dreams from My Father" mentioned that he "went to Sunday school here when he was between 6 and 10, around that time." Also, "our church is easy to control from a security point of view," he added.

The church, a renovated historic home, has a second-floor wrap-around deck that overlooks the entire property and Pali Highway.

Access to the property, located at the corner of Niolopa Street and the entrance to a cul-de-sac, was easy to monitor, and there were only two homes nearby, Young said.

The first couple of appointments with the Secret Service were interrupted by Obama's spur-of-the-moment activities, like running off to Sea Life Park with his girls.

"The place had to be searched from top to bottom," he said. "Every nook and cranny, every cobweb was checked!" Bomb-sniffing dogs were called in, he said.

On the day of the service, four sharpshooters dressed in full body armor positioned themselves on the roof, and Secret Service agents stood watch every 30 to 40 feet around the perimeter.

"The biggest problem of the day turned out to be our limited restroom facilities. There were long lines of ladies outside both of them," he said.

When Young reminded Obama that he had attended Sunday school at First Unitarian, "his eyes lit up, and he said, 'Oh, that's right!'" No records can be found that Dunham was a member of the church, or of how regularly Obama attended, but Young said the Unitarian church is not renowned for its record-keeping.

Young was proud that the church was a place away from public and media scrutiny where some 18 friends and family members could share "their deep and intimate relationship with a person who had influence on their lives." With an emphasis on "storytelling," the service was marked not by grief, but joy, he said.

His impression of Obama: "He was just a relaxed, tall, skinny kid, nothing presidential about him. He was chatty and relaxed, probably not something he gets an awful lot of chance to be."

Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, helped plan the service, selecting the spiritual passages that he would deliver, said Young, who "had no idea of Madelyn's idea of God."

In his opening prayer, he read a poem by Raymond J. Baughan, which begins, "We belong to the eternal here and now." It concludes:

Some call it life, some God,

It is called by many names and no name.

There is a oneness to which we belong

And from which we have emerged.

The Rev. Mike Young managed to keep a secret for three weeks: President-elect Barack Obama would be honoring his beloved grandmother at Young's church in Nuuanu.

Young, pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, could only tell his wife and a handful of church administrators that a small, private service was planned for Madelyn Payne Dunham on Dec. 23.

"It was very hard to keep this secret. ... The fun part was working with the Secret Service folk to make it happen," he said.

The woman who helped raise Obama died two days before he was elected president in November.

Young said he was not overly surprised or nervous, "just excited," when he first got a call from Borthwick Mortuary three weeks before the service was to be held.

It all made sense.

Young said Obama's book "Dreams from My Father" mentioned that he "went to Sunday school here when he was between 6 and 10, around that time." Also, "our church is easy to control from a security point of view," he added.

The church, a renovated historic home, has a second-floor wrap-around deck that overlooks the entire property and Pali Highway.

Access to the property, located at the corner of Niolopa Street and the entrance to a cul-de-sac, was easy to monitor, and there were only two homes nearby, Young said.

The first couple of appointments with the Secret Service were interrupted by Obama's spur-of-the-moment activities, like running off to Sea Life Park with his girls.

"The place had to be searched from top to bottom," he said. "Every nook and cranny, every cobweb was checked!" Bomb-sniffing dogs were called in, he said.

On the day of the service, four sharpshooters dressed in full body armor positioned themselves on the roof, and Secret Service agents stood watch every 30 to 40 feet around the perimeter.

"The biggest problem of the day turned out to be our limited restroom facilities. There were long lines of ladies outside both of them," he said.

When Young reminded Obama that he had attended Sunday school at First Unitarian, "his eyes lit up, and he said, 'Oh, that's right!'" No records can be found that Dunham was a member of the church, or of how regularly Obama attended, but Young said the Unitarian church is not renowned for its record-keeping.

Young was proud that the church was a place away from public and media scrutiny where some 18 friends and family members could share "their deep and intimate relationship with a person who had influence on their lives." With an emphasis on "storytelling," the service was marked not by grief, but joy, he said.

His impression of Obama: "He was just a relaxed, tall, skinny kid, nothing presidential about him. He was chatty and relaxed, probably not something he gets an awful lot of chance to be."

Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, helped plan the service, selecting the spiritual passages that he would deliver, said Young, who "had no idea of Madelyn's idea of God."

In his opening prayer, he read a poem by Raymond J. Baughan, which begins, "We belong to the eternal here and now." It concludes:

Some call it life, some God,

It is called by many names and no name.

There is a oneness to which we belong

And from which we have emerged.

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