Rick Warren: Preaching Runs in the Family

Like many African Americans, I was stunned that President-elect asked Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the Invocation at his inauguration. But when I thought about it, that move was classic Obama: Obama the bridge, the healer. And I thought that the good Pastor delivered a stirring message on that frigid cold January morning. (I would later learn that he was wearing Billy Graham’s hat; Warren is often compared to Graham, who was my father’s favorite preacher, without a doubt. Graham had worn the same hat to the inaugurations of several Presidents, starting with Richard Nixon, I think. Graham’s gift of the hat was a symbolic passing of the ministerial baton to his veritable successor.) When we got the funding for the series, the Pew Foundation asked us to devote one program to religious figures. I liked that idea, being somewhat spiritual myself. And one of the people who came to mind was Pastor Rick.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Saddleback Church Pastor Rick WarrenRick Warren happens to be the author of one of the best-selling hardcover nonfiction books ever published in the United States. I have even begun to read it, a chapter per day, as he has asked his other 30 million readers to do. I was eager to learn about his ancestry, to learn if he was part of a long tradition of leadership. We asked him to be in the series. His office told us that he was too busy. I was concerned that perhaps he had turned us down because ideological differences About a month after this, however, we got a call out of the blue saying that he would be delighted to be in the series! So off to Orange County we went this past Saturday, to the 31,000 member Saddleback Church.

Rick’s family tree is so detailed that we actually had to stop in the middle of the reveal so that he could go over to the Saturday service to introduce a guest speaker—and then return so that we could reveal the other half of his family tree! And it turns out that not only is he just one of several preachers on his various family lines, but his family has origins in this country almost as old as the American colonies themselves. Not only that, but two of Rick’s great grandfathers fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, and had diametrically opposed views about slavery. Pastor Rick was an engaged, open and reflective guest. The five hours we spent together filming (his staff had allotted us two!) were among the most rewarding that I have ever experienced. I just wish I had asked him to show me Billy Graham’s hat. Rick told me that he had been worried that the hat would be too small or too big. It fit perfectly.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Rick Warren, Angela Buchdahl, and Yasir Qadhi.