Obamas attend church in crime-ridden area

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his family marked the Easter holiday by attending a music-filled service at a historically black Methodist church in southeast Washington, an area that was rocked by violence last week.

A boisterous crowd of more than 1,000 people welcomed the Obamas on Sunday at the Allen Chapel AME Church. Joining him at the service were his wife, Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson.

Also attending were the mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, and his wife.

“Mr. President, you have no idea how much your presence has meant to us today,” Allen Chapel’s senior pastor, the Rev. Michael Bell, said after his sermon.

Bell said it was heartening to know that southeast Washington has not been forgotten, adding that Obama’s presence at the church was “bringing healing and hope into this community right now.”

Four people were killed and five wounded last Tuesday night when gunmen in a minivan sprayed a crowd with bullets. Southeast Washington is also beset by high unemployment and poverty.

Obama took communion at the end of the nearly two-hour service. He and his family have attended several churches since his inauguration but have not settled on joining a specific congregation.

Earlier in the service, Bell drew laughter and cheers when he described Obama as “the most debonaire, the most suave president of this United States of America.” The pastor also praised Mrs. Obama’s efforts at community outreach.

Leaving ‘Law & Order’ 

NEW YORK — S. Epatha Merkerson, the senior member of the “Law & Order” cast, is leaving after the show’s current 20th season.

Merkerson, who joined the NBC drama in 1993 as New York police Lt. Anita Van Buren, has decided to exit after 16 years.

This season, Van Buren’s story line has taken a personal turn as she battles cancer.

Early in the 57-year-old Merkerson’s career, she played Reba the Mail Lady on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” She won Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for her performance in HBO’s 2005 film “Lackawanna Blues.” In February, she won an NAACP Image Award for her role on “Law & Order.”

As Merkerson prepares to take her leave, “Law & Order” awaits news of whether it will be back next season. In recent years, the series has suffered a ratings slump.

A renewal would make it TV’s longest-running drama. It currently ties “Gunsmoke.”

Southern culture celebrated 

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Oscar winner Morgan Freeman was honored at a celebration of Southern culture and art on Saturday.

The Southern literary magazine the Oxford American presented its award for outstanding contributions to Southern culture to Freeman at its first Best of the South Gala.

“True Grit” author Charles Portis received the magazine’s Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature award, and reigning American Idol and Arkansas native Kris Allen performed.