At one end of the Mall, Easter morning was beginning delicately: A crowd of birds chirped at the Capitol, the lights of a recycling truck blinked in the dawn, a lone jogger’s feet struck the pebble path with rhythmic crunches.
But the Lincoln Memorial, at the other end, was rocking.
“We want to welcome you to a very unpolitically correct celebration!” Pastor Amos Dodge boomed through loudspeakers from the plaza in front of the memorial. Some people didn’t like his claim that Jesus Christ was the only way to God, he said. “Someone said: ‘Why aren’t you more inclusive?’ I want to be clear: This is our party, and we’re going to party hearty!”
And for the few thousand worshipers at Amos’s annual Easter sunrise service, the party meant prayer, patriotism, the sun coming up over a backdrop of monuments, and a joking pastor. He teased the crowd, some of whom had jogged and biked to the service, about how he had forgotten the words to his own sermon. And about their fear of letting loose and waving their arms while they prayed.
“I want those of you who don’t feel comfortable putting up two or one arm to just put an arm up halfway,” said Dodge, a Vienna pastor who began the service 33 Easters ago with 120 people at the Reflecting Pool. “You’ll remember Easter 2011 as the time ‘I went crazy!’ ”
In another quintessential Washington Easter scene, members of Shiloh Baptist Church endured metal detectors, Secret Service agents and a phalanx of D.C. police to get into a service the Obamas would be attending.
“I was so excited, I forgot to make my Easter eggs,” said Rosa Peak, 84, who was among those in line at dawn for the 10 a.m. service at Shiloh, which was founded by freed slaves in the 1860s in the city’s Shaw neighborhood.
Peak was one of the first African American teachers to work in then-all-white Southern High School in Baltimore, starting in 1956. But overcoming that hurdle wasn’t as powerful to her, she said, as living to see a black president.
The Obamas came in the side door and were among the 3,000 people who heard the Rev. Wallach Charles Smith’s sermon, “The Resurrection Changes Everything.” They took to their feet for raucous hymns and watched as several children and an adult were baptized.
After welcoming the president, Smith offered him the opportunity to speak from the pulpit. Obama raised his hand, waved and smiled, but declined, as he has done each year of his presidency.
At the same time, a few dozen homeless men streamed into the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for an Easter breakfast, a few blocks from the Obamas’ home.
“The weather is beautiful. I just had a cup of coffee. I’m feeling well — it’s a good Easter,” said Amos Smith, 48, of Baltimore, who said he has been living in the neighborhood near the White House for about two years.
Sitting in one of the uppermost seats at the Lincoln Memorial service were Erich and Carol Hoernle of New Jersey, who were on the final day of a week-long vacation in Washington. Because Carol, 59, is a teacher, they often travel on the holiday and find sunrise services wherever they go by asking the National Park Service — since public parks are often inspiring places for worship. Or, if they’re home, they attend a sunrise service at a nearby beach.
“A lot of ministers don’t really inspire you, but this one did,” Erich, 66, said of Dodge and his sermon about Christianity providing “doors” to get in, out of and through situations in life. “It was poignant.”
The couple said they were next headed for the U.S. Botanic Garden once it opened.
Dodge, pastor of the evangelical Capital Church in Vienna, was a blend of tour guide, pastor and talk show host, walking through the crowd on the steps, cracking jokes and praising the city’s monuments.
He spoke about Easter, when Christians mark the resurrection of Jesus, as a real story about — not a metaphor for — second chances.
“What’s your greatest fear? Hope? Dream for yourself and your family?” he asked.
The crowd ranged from sweaty joggers and bikers with their earbuds off to sleepy little girls in fancy dresses, families in matching sweatshirts and ushers in suits. By a show of hands, the crowd was largely first-timers. Veterans of the service knew to bring blankets and beach chairs for the wet grass and sunglasses for the view down the Mall, directly into the rising sun.
Dodge said Sunday was the warmest service in 33 years — it was 60 degrees at sunrise — and he recalled Easters that have come with pouring rain and subfreezing temperatures.
“It’s nice to be with people outside just your regular community,” said David Wall, 36, who biked with his wife, Carrie, from Annandale. The couple met at an Easter lunch four years ago, and on Sunday they were considering going home, showering and going to a second Easter service at their own church.
By 8 a.m., the Lincoln Memorial service was over, and workers were breaking down the chairs and the stage. A fresh crowd of tourists was heading up the stairs to see the memorial as different Easters were beginning to unfold across the city.