Reflections on the 57th Inaugural Prayer Service

This was truly an inter-religious service at our National Cathedral, which is Episcopal. The 20 participants in the service are all national religious leaders in their own faith: a number of protestant Christians with the full range of perspectives, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, 3 Rabbis (two of whom were female), a Sikh, and Muslims. This group with a few spouses and family members were the 30 vetted people who met the Obamas and Bidens before the service in a large chapel in the crypt of the Cathedral. Katharine and I were first in the receiving line. I congratulated the President and said, "Congratulations and welcome to our National Cathedral. Can WE now be called fellow Episcopalians?" He responded immediately with a smile, "Why not?" He had attended St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the White House yesterday before the inauguration and has attended it frequently in recent years. President Obama pointed to Katharine's staff and said, "I need one of those! I'd get more respect around the Oval Office".

I comment that while waiting for the Presidential party to arrive that Katharine had told me that the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios wanted to meet me. I had a very warm conversation with him and was able to tell about being in a wonderful Greek Orthodox Church in the Gaza Strip in 2008. Katharine is on a couple national-level committees with him where the most recent one is working on the problem of "human trafficking". He had complementary things to say about the effectiveness of Katharine in these meetings.

Read about the service


We then as individuals or family units had our photos taken with the Obamas on one side of us and the Bidens on the other. I then split to find my way to my reserved seat on the center aisle right side six rows back from the front. To my right was the husband of the Bishop of Washington and directly in front of me as a Secret Service man. I should note that I had arrived at the Cathedral at 8:30 am for the 10:30 service which did not start until 11 am since the Presidential party was late. After being screened as we are at airport security I had to wait around for a good hour and chatted with a number of Secret Service agents. The place was swarming with them; all quite friendly and willing to chat once they sized me up. At one point four Secret Service snipers headed past me toward the elevators at the front of the Cathedral. They were all dressed in black with balaclavas and helmets besides the bulging of flak jackets and large canvas type cases with "musical weapons?" I asked, "Are they a SWAT team?" No, said the Secret Service man, "They are snipers who will be on the roof." Their aggressive walk and stark appearance startled me.

The service was beautiful and inspiring and the constant theme was to promote peace, working together as a country with a Democrats and Republicans working together on unifying project to strengthen the country. Also, the Methodist preacher in the sermon gave abundant thanks to the President for sacrificing, for living in glass houses, and for accepting the constant barrage of criticism with very little praise. He thanked him for his Inaugural address for inspiring us with some unifying goals. It is clear to me that our modern societies need these inter-religious messages of hope and inspiration that we do not get from the bickering politicians or from many in our largely secular society.

There was an incident that alarmed me right before the sermon. A woman perhaps 60 years old with colorful full body robes and a head shawl walked up the center aisle and stopped about 5 feet from me, to my left and slightly behind me. She seemed somewhat emotional and at one point pulled out a kerchief from her hand bag. On the surface she did not appear to be a threat, but it did not take much imagination on my part to visualize what might be under those full garments. The Secret Service agent in front of me was sizing her up and talking very discretely under a cupped hand and finally pointed to her indicating that she should move back. She moved back about 15 feet and stopped when another agent came up from behind and escorted her away. The woman was probably not a threat, but I tell you that I was relieved that the agents quietly and discretely got her out of there. I wanted to thank the agent in front of me but as the service ended he immediately left with the Presidential party along with a number of agents sitting in the immediate area. A few agents remained after the service and while waiting for Katharine to change out of her vestments I related the story to one of them. He had not been aware of the incident and said, "Everyone had been through a metal detector." He went on to say that he would pass the story of my thanks on to the agents for their good work. I was not imagining that she had something metal under her garments but something non-metal strapped around her waist. Am I getting paranoid?

Definitely, it was a glorious service and I feel blessed to have lucked into the situation where I have these opportunities of a lifetime to meet many interesting people in interesting places.