From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan
BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- Obama took a detour from the standard rally or economic roundtable Friday afternoon, to hold a meeting with Latino religious leaders and making a spur of the moment stop at the U.S.-Mexico border.
At a small, invitation-only event at the University of Texas-Brownsville with about 150 evangelical and Catholic ministers, Obama spoke of his own conversion to Christianity as a young man working with churches on the South Side of Chicago in his 20s. As a child, Obama grew up in a secular household, as the New York Times noted in April 2007: "The grandparents who helped raise Mr. Obama were nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists. His mother was an anthropologist who collected religious texts the way others picked up tribal masks, teaching her children the inspirational power of the common narratives and heroes." Obama did not grow up with his Kenyan father, whose family was Muslim.
Obama tied the message of his campaign to a religious message, telling the story of Jeremiah 29 from the bible. "God has a plan for his people," Obama said. "That was the truth Jeremiah grasped -- the creed that brought comfort to the exiles -- that faith is not just a pathway to personal redemption, but a force that can bind us together and lift us up as a community."
The event began and ended with a prayer and the majority of questions focused on how Obama would handle immigration. Obama said the issue of immigration, like the one of poverty, was a matter of "conscience" and should be handled as such. He also discussed the importance of foreign investment and said that the U.S. should do more to help the poor in Mexico as a way to deter immigration.
The Obama campaign has held similar faith forums like these across the country, and has effectively tapped into the faith vote. A recent email by his religious director, Joshua DuBois, announced that Obama had won the faith vote overwhelmingly in every primary and caucus thus far.
"Beyond any policy or issue, people are motivated by their faith," DuBois said and added that it had allowed Latinos to build a personal connection with Obama. Faith outreach is an innovative way for the campaign to make inroads among Latinos, who already have a long and affectionate relationship with Senator Hillary Clinton.
After the event, Obama decided on his own that he wanted to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, a part of which actually runs through the campus of Brownsville, which sits on the banks of the Rio Grande. The Department of Homeland Security at one point, had threatened to run the border fence through the grounds of the campus itself.
The campaign hastily arranged a small pool of reporters to go with him and drove him to the border line, a grassy area with a ditch marking the U.S.-Mexico line. Obama stood on the U.S. side, looked out toward Mexico and joked, "I've been to Mexico before in college. But I can't talk about that," he said laughing.
After visiting the border he stopped at a Sombrero festival where he greeted Latino voters, took a picture with a Mariachi singer and ate a taco. On the plane, talking about the event, Obama commented on how complex of an issue immigration was, saying that the way even Texans and Arizonans felt about immigration and border security differed.
Asked if his Spanish was getting better, he said his Spanish was fine, it was just that he only knew 15 words. "But I speak Indonesian, you know for the vast Indonesian population in this country," he added with a smile.