MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. (AP) — Sunday morning at Grace Baptist Church in this New York City suburb finds Hillary Clinton in her comfort zone.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” Clinton says as sunshine streams through the stained-glass windows and hits the packed pews. “Being here at this church with these beautiful people, knowing how grateful I am for this spring day. I feel blessed and grace is all around us.”
Black Baptist churches may not seem like an obvious match for Clinton, a white Methodist from the Chicago suburbs. But the Democratic presidential candidate, who’s been criticized for her tentative, even awkward political skills, often seems most at ease in house of worship. It’s where she’s shared her faith for many years and earned a loyal following.
“One thing not a lot of people really understand about her is the central role of faith in her life,” said Mo Elleithee, Clinton’s spokesman in her 2008 White House campaign.
Clinton points to her faith as having sustained her through hard times and informing her approach to public service. Her days in Arkansas, coupled with her strong religious beliefs, have helped her connect to churchgoers in black communities, where she enjoys overwhelming support. Democratic rival Bernie Sanders has visited churches, too, during the campaign, but doesn’t have the same rapport from the altar.
“The first time I ever walked into a black church with Hillary, she knew exactly where she was, you could see an exhale from her, a big smile came on her face, she didn’t just step into the building, she stepped into worshipping with them,” said Burns Strider, director of faith and values outreach during Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “I must have done that a hundred times with her.”
Visits to churches prompt some of Clinton’s most candid, intimate moments.
On a recent trip to the Holy Ghost Cathedral in Detroit, Bishop Corletta Vaughn referenced Clinton’s strength in dealing with husband Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
In response, Clinton spoke about the story of the prodigal son, alluding to, as she often does, a version written by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and writer. She said what the parable “teaches us is to practice the discipline of gratitude every day.”
According to Vaughn, Clinton’s remarks showed a “deep reservoir of faith.”
“I’ve been in the faith business for 42 years,” Vaughn said. “I know one who is authentic and genuine. Her language speaks of her faith. … When she started talking about the prodigal son, you didn’t learn that this morning.”
Strider, who emails with Clinton most days about Scripture and faith, said she has seemed more willing to talk about religion during this campaign than in the past. He said Clinton had “to recognize that she’s not using her faith for other means. That was really valuable for her to understand that she was actually showing her faith which could lead others to make more rational choices.”
Seeking to organize religious voters for Clinton, Strider founded a group called Faith Voters for Hillary about two years ago. While he is no longer directly involved, he said it has an active online presence and over 300,000 people in its database.
Still, some black pastors question Clinton’s hold on religious voters.
Darrell Scott, the senior pastor of New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has endorsed Republican Donald Trump and helped organize a meeting with Trump and black clergy last year.
“She’s very, very liberal. This is what I don’t understand about the pastors. Christians by nature, should be conservative,” said Scott, who serves as CEO of Trump’s new National Diversity Coalition. “She’s the absolute wrong choice for a voter of faith.”
Trump’s efforts to win over black churchgoers have been mixed. At that November meeting last year, some pastors criticized Trump for racially-charged language, though others emerged offering support.
Clinton reflected on her faith journey during a speech before the United Methodist Women’s Assembly two years ago. She spoke warmly about her childhood church in Park Ridge, Illinois, where her mother taught Sunday school and a young Clinton helped to clean and prepare the altar for services. She also remembered her father’s nightly prayers, her grandmother’s hymns and the charismatic youth minister who introduced her to the idea of “faith in action.”
“I loved that church,” Clinton said. “I loved how it made me feel about myself, I loved the doors that it opened in my understanding of the world.”
Childhood friend Ernest Ricketts, who attended school and church with Clinton, said that the church instilled the idea of service to others and that their youth minister helped broaden their horizons, with visits to other churches, screening movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” and going to see Martin Luther King speak in Chicago.
“It had a pretty profound effect on me,” said Ricketts, 69, a retired restaurateur who lives in Oakbrook, Illinois. “I know that for Hillary, it was part of a transformation from a fairly sheltered adolescent to an adult with a very strong concept of what you need to do as a person of faith.”