As dawn streaked the sky above the Mall on Sunday, April Vance was far from her native California, where she usually celebrates Easter, but she felt right at home.
Shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others who had awaked in darkness to attend the Easter sunrise service at the Lincoln Memorial, hosted by the Capital Church of Vienna, the 33-year-old Hill staffer described the experience as “bliss.”
“It’s incredible to be with all these people, believing,” she said. “Imagine getting up with your kids at 4 or 5 in the morning. . . . I was really blown away.”
The 6,000 people overflowing from the seats and filling the marble steps of the monument included Washington area natives, tourists and immigrants, all drawn to the spot with views of the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool.
Pastor Amos Dodge reminded the crowd that the annual sunrise celebration had expanded over the 36 years since it began — and then he invoked an even earlier Easter in the same spot.
“On this day, 75 years ago, an estimated 75,000 people gathered on these grounds to hear a singer who had been banned from singing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin,” he said.
That singer, the world-renowned African American contralto Marian Anderson, was instead invited by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sing on the Mall on Easter 1939. Dodge played a recording of Anderson singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” that day.
“There’s hope for you on this Easter, no matter who has locked you out or who has pushed you away,” he told the crowd as several people raised their arms in praise.
Cathleen Drew, 53, of Arlington County knew to dress warmly, in a green puffy vest, and to bring extra blankets. She has been attending the Easter celebration for 20 years and on this day had come with her husband, three children and her sister-in-law, who was there for the first time.
“To be able to come down here to our nation’s capital, the seat of government, to have the freedom to have this service, it’s pretty incredible,” she said. “You think of other countries where they don’t get to do this — they get persecuted.”
One attendee, Mary, a 55-year-old hairstylist from Iran who lives in Arlington, said this was the case for her. Saying she was afraid of inviting trouble in Iran if she gave her last name, she described how she had hosted several friends who spent the night at her house to attend the service.
“All night I woke up” repeatedly, she said. “I was so excited, I didn’t want to miss it.”
Elsewhere in the city, others gathered for Easter services, including President Obama and his family. They visited the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, where the pews were full.
The 175-year-old predominantly African American congregation has welcomed Democratic and Republican lawmakers since the days when the church was a few blocks from the White House. The Obamas attended St John’s Episcopal Church last Easter and have visited several other District congregations since they moved to Washington, but they have not joined one.
When the president first attended Nineteenth Street, on the eve of his 2009 inauguration, the line to get into the church stretched along the sidewalk, down the street, and people had to be turned away. But on Easter everyone wanting to attend got inside.
At the service, Obama high-fived a baby boy and hugged attendees, and first lady Michelle Obama blew kisses from the pew.
Pastor Derrick Harkins asked that God give the president “every measure of encouragement” and “wisdom,” and “tend to his spirit” under the weight of criticism. Loud “yes” responses from worshipers rose up after each sentence. Harkins also offered prayers for the first lady and the Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha.
The National Community Church, which has seven sites in the Washington area and thousands of congregants, celebrated its first Easter service at the Lincoln Theatre, where Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington once performed.
The boisterous sound of contemporary Christian rock reverberated as a spotlight bounced over the crowd of 800 mostly young-adult congregants.
Dave Schmidgall, the pastor of the church’s U Street campus, said the significance of the new location echoed in more than just the musical focus of the service.
“We fight tooth and nail to preserve diversity in our community. This is the most divided city, I think, in the country — politically, racially, socioeconomically,” Schmidgall said. “U Street is the corridor where black and white and Hispanic sort of all mush. And if we can be humbly coming in and saying this is what we’re about, we can unite people.”
Hamil R. Harris and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report, which includes information from White House pool reporters.