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Tuesday, Jan 16, 2018
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A former local pastor conducted memorial service for Obama’s grandmother.

The election of a new president always gets the connection game rolling. And Tampa has its distant claim to Barack Obama via the Rev. Mike Young, a former Tampa pastor who conducted the December memorial service for Madelyn Dunham, the president's beloved 86-year-old grandmother. Young, who has a long history of social activism, now serves at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu - the island's only UU church. His name is familiar in these parts: He was pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa from 1982 to 1995. When Obama was in elementary school in Honolulu, Young recounted in a telephone phone interview, either his grandmother or grandfather (there's confusion over which one) brought him to Sunday school there for several years.
The Dunhams had attended a Unitarian church in the Seattle area when Obama's mother was a teenager. Although there's no record of their attendance at the Honolulu church, Obama writes about it in his memoir "Dreams From My Father," and one family who still attends the church remembers him. When Young reminded Obama at the memorial service, "his eyes lit up, and he turned to Michelle and said, 'Hey, that's right. This is where I went to Sunday school.'" Obama spent some time on the second floor, where Sunday school is held, but didn't recognize anything. That's not surprising, Young said, because the church has been renovated over the years. The 100-year-old building had been an estate of the Cooks, a well-known family in Hawaii.
Controlling Access The ability to control access may be the most important reason the church was chosen for the memorial service, Young said. "The most interesting part was dealing with the Secret Service. I expected the 'Men in Black.'" Instead, he said, "it was much more like a fraternity party. They were relaxed, friendly, chatty" but still thorough. He also thinks the church was chosen because he has worked with the mortuary that prepared Madelyn Dunham's body. A longtime social activist, Young openly admits he voted for Obama. "In the primary, I had a choice between the first woman and the first non-white, both of whom I could support. And it was the first time since I turned 21 that I voted for, rather than against, a presidential candidate." Young refers to Obama as Barry. "That's who he was here. No one here called him Barack." At the memorial service, the 70-year-old minister saw Obama as "a tall skinny kid." "The person who was the most impressive was not the president or Michelle. They were just folk." Instead, Young was intrigued with Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half-sister. He describes the local high-school history teacher as "bright and articulate." Young also learned from his director of religious education that Obama's late mother, Ann Dunham, was instrumental in recovering traditional art and artisan skills in Indonesia. People have wondered when Obama will choose a church in Washington. "Having experienced what it took to have the memorial service here, I think it would totally disrupt and distort any church to have him attend. I wouldn't want to wish that on anyone." Doesn't Young want Obama to return to his Unitarian roots? "I want him to be what he is, not what we are," he insists. "People should go where their spiritual and intellectual path leads them." A Man Of Distinction While Young was in Tampa, he was active on the boards of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. He helped found the Florida Consumer Action Network, and he was president of the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council, winning its Distinguished Service Award in 1992. He received the Drum Major for Justice Award by the Tampa Dr. MLK Jr. Commemorative Committee in 1991. His name wasn't that familiar out of his own circles. "That was because most of the things I had done were behind the scenes, as it were, pushing others into the limelight," he said. He now can add a new title to his mantle: published author. For more than 40 years, Young has been writing poems, meditations, memorials and liturgical pieces, keeping them in notebooks and in boxes. His collection, "A Preacher's Poems," was published in December by Praxis International Inc., and available through Amazon.com. Young still makes occasional visits to Tampa, where he has friends and family, including his son, Joshua, who does the sound at Skipper's Smokehouse. At the Honolulu church, his last official duty will be in June. Then Young will leave to become an interim minister - where, he doesn't know. It's time to move on, he said, but he doesn't know if he'll ever retire. "Before you're retired, you have to be tired," he said. "When I get tired I'll retire."

Suzie Siegel, a former editor at The Tampa Tribune, attends the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa.

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A former local pastor conducted memorial service for Obama’s grandmother.