President Barack Obama began Inauguration Day by attending a worship service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, the 197-year-old parish a block from the White House known as “the church of the presidents.”
Obama, joined by his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, sat in the first row of the packed church, not the traditional Pew 54, the president’s pew, which is reserved for the commander-in-chief.
In his sermon, the Reverend Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, called Obama the “pastor-in-chief” for his address to mourners at a memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school.
Stanley recalled the story of Jesus, “the most powerful person in the room,” washing the feet of his disciples, according to the gospel of St. John.
“Mr. President, you have an awfully big room,” Stanley said, telling him he must continue using the power of his office for the benefit of all Americans. He urged Obama “leverage that power for the benefit of the other people in the room.”
Though the president has never joined a church in Washington, he occasionally attends St. John’s, which is across Lafayette Square from the presidential mansion.
Reverend Luis Leon, pastor of the Episcopal church since 1994, offered the benediction during the public inauguration at the Capitol today. He replaced Pastor Louie Giglio, after the discovery that a sermon Giglio gave in the mid-1990s was critical of gay rights. The Episcopal Church supports same-sex relationships.
Leon is an immigrant from Guantanamo, Cuba. He came to the U.S. in 1961 at age 12 as part of the “Operation Peter Pan” flights out of Cuba, joining thousands of children whose parents feared for their future in the island nation.
St. John’s, which has about 1,000 members, is registered as a national historic landmark. The first service was held in 1816. James Madison was the first president to attend the church. Every president since then has attended a regular or occasional service at St. John’s.
Obama and Biden are scheduled to attend a national prayer service at Washington National Cathedral tomorrow, concluding an inaugural tradition dating to George Washington.
The bell in St. John’s steeple weighs nearly 1,000 pounds. It was cast by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in August 1822 and installed at St. John’s on Nov. 30, 1822, according to the church’s website.
Obama yesterday marked his official swearing-in yesterday by attending Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Washington, D.C.’s oldest African-American congregations.
“It is an honor to be part of a milestone in American history,” Leon said to the El Nuevo Herald newspaper. “It is a special honor to be an immigrant in this country, the only country where an event like this can happen.”
“I feel that in some way I am representing the U.S. Hispanic community,” Leon said. “We are an important part of this country.”
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