Beginning in the 1940s, Betty Mooney had worked closely with Frank Laubach. Frank Laubach was a Christian missionary, and a world-renowned literacy advocate whose "each one teach one" technique is said to be responsible for teaching perhaps one hundred million people around the world to read. You can read more about Laubach in this New York Times obituary. He was a great man of God.
I first heard of him through Dallas Willard. In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard references Laubach in his description of how we "discover the effectiveness of his (Jesus') rule with us precisely in the details of day-to-day existence."
"Frank Laubach wrote of how, in his personal experiment of moment-by-moment submission to the will of God, the fine texture of his work and life experience was transformed. In January of 1930 he began to cultivate the habit of turning his mind to Christ for one second out of every minute. After only four weeks he reported, 'I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt it this way before. I need something, and turn round to find it waiting for me. I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me."
"From a lonely missionary post in the Philippines, God raised Frank Laubach to the status of Christian world statesman and spokesman for Christ. He founded the World Literacy Crusade, still in operation today, and without any political appointment he was influential on United States foreign policy in the post-World War II years. But he was forever and foremost Christ's man, and always knew that his brilliant ideas and incredible energy and effectiveness derived from his practice of constant conscious interface with God."
I later learned about Laubach's Letters from a Christian Mystic, which you can explore further in this Renovaré post. Willard offered his reflections on the book in the 1988 edited collection, "Christian Spirituality."
OK, back to Betty. Betty spent eight years in India working on literacy issues, moved to Baltimore to work with the Laubach-sponsored Koinonia Foundation, and then in 1957 found herself in Nairobi, Kenya. There, she "quickly won the active support of Tom Mboya, who introduced her to a large crowd at one of his weekly political rallies. Then, in the summer of 1958, she and Helen Roberts, another American literacy teacher, began preparing a series of elementary instructional readers in Swahili, Luo, and Kamba." As her work continued, she needed help and so she hired a young, promising Kenyan to serve as her secretary and clerk. Soon, that clerk was taking the lead role in the production of two Luo readers. In November 1958, Laubach visited Nairobi, where he met this young clerk. Mooney proudly included a picture of the three of them in her monthly newsletter.
The opportunity was a good one for the clerk. He was paid well. He was able to perfect his English. Mooney was so impressed by him that she wrote Laubach suggesting he bring the young Kenyan (who she said was "a whiz and types so fast that I have a hard time keeping ahead of him") to serve as his secretary.
The clerk had other plans, though they included America--he wanted to attend university in the United States. After receiving a notice of acceptance to the University of Hawaii, Mooney wrote Laubach again to request his help. She wanted to pay both tuition and half of his estimated $800 room ad board, but she wanted those funds to be viewed by both Kenyan officials--and apparently (the clerk) too--as a scholarship rather than a personal gift. Laubach agreed to help, replying to Mooney that "I remember him very well, and agree that he is unusually smart. I have no doubt that eh will do a very good job."
The clerk finished the readers, and in late July 1959, his student visa was approved and his travel to America was booked. The clerk wrote to Laubach, thanking him 'for all that you have done for me to make my ways for further studies possible." He also expressed hope that he would see Laubach again during a brief stay in Baltimore, where he stayed for three weeks as a guest of the Koinonia Foundation. It's unclear whether the clerk saw Laubach on that trip, but he would see both Laubach and Mooney in Honolulu in the closing weeks of 1959. The clerk would see Betty Mooney again in 1962 as he visited her and her husband in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He would receive another $1000 in scholarship money from Frank Laubach's Literacy Fund to pursue his studies at Harvard.
What happened between 1959 and 1962? Well, the clerk received his B.A. degree in June 1962. In April 1962, he was elected to the national academic honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. On February 2, 1961, he was married to Stanley Ann Dunham, who went by Ann.
OK, but what happened between February 1961 and June 1962. Well, for one thing, on Friday, August 4, 1961, Barack Hussein Obama II was born.
Yes, if you had not guessed it already, the clerk was Barack Obama Sr., father of the forty-fourth President of the United States (the picture above shows Obama Sr. with Laubach and Mooney)..
I first met the president over a decade ago, and served as a representative to faith communities on his behalf for his first term as president. I thought I knew every faith tie he had. I was proven wrong on that count while reading David Garrow's masterful tome, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (Note 1: The quotations above that do not have a citation are all from Garrow's biography. Note 2: I discovered later that David Maraniss included this history in his 2012 biography of President Obama, Barack Obama: The Story as well.). I will keep my comments on the book brief for now, but I will say for now that Rising Star is the most attentive to faith of any account of Obama's biography I have read. I learned absolutely stunning things, especially from Obama's days as a community organizer. What is also clear is how steeped he was in faith communities, how important faith was to his professional development as an organizer and his view of how communities work on a sociological level, and how much the religious education he received on the Southside of Chicago enabled him to run and win his races for State Senate, U.S. Senate and the presidency. I will likely write more about this book soon, and I highly recommend it--even as I do not agree with everything in it (and understand that the president himself was not happy with aspects of the book). I have felt like I received an education on dozens of different topics reading this long, but worthwhile, book.
It is this story--the story of Christian Mystic Frank Laubach, his longtime colleague Betty Mooney, and a young Kenyan intellectual--that has most captured my imagination. The last fifteen years of my professional life have been impacted so profoundly by this intersection of the Christian faith and the life of Barack Obama. And with all of that history, I can’t help but smile at this:
Evangelical Christians had more to do with making Barack Obama president than they thought.