From Worshipers, Mixed Reflections on Reagan
By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page B01
When Robert M. Norris, senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, asked his congregation yesterday morning to pray for the country's leaders, he singled out one in particular. "Let us thank You," Norris said, "for the life of Ronald Reagan."
Many people of faith throughout the Washington region held the former president and his family in their prayers yesterday. "Remembering your servant Ronald Reagan, give to the departed eternal rest," intoned a prayer leader at Washington National Cathedral. "Let perpetual light shine on them," responded the congregation.
Reagan was not eulogized from the pulpit -- that will happen Friday, when the cathedral hosts the former president's state funeral -- but those attending remembered him. "We prayed for him and his family," said Linda Bohnen, a visitor from Sonora, Calif. "It seems odd that we say so many good things about people when they're gone," she added, noting the coverage of Reagan's life filling airwaves and newspapers. "I hope he knew that when he was still alive."
The former president, who announced in 1994 that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and stayed out of the public eye, seemed to some to have departed long ago, and his passing brought a kind of relief. "There's more of a peacefulness associated with his death," said Marie Greening, an engineer, after Mass at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Old Town Alexandria. "The nation had felt his suffering for a long time."
"I had mixed feelings," said Ramesh Ponnuru, 29, a magazine editor who attended services yesterday at St. Matthew's Cathedral in the District. "On the one hand, you're sad, but on the other hand, it brings an end to his suffering and his family's suffering."
"I think he left us a stronger and more self-confident America," said Ponnuru, who was not old enough to vote when Reagan last ran for office.
For political opponents of the former president, news of his passing prompted mixed feelings of a different sort.
The Rev. Terry A. Smith III, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood, once attended a prayer breakfast at the White House with other members of the clergy during Reagan's presidency. But during services yesterday, Smith didn't say a word to his 2,800-member flock about the former president's death.
"Reagan was not a friend to the African American community. He was a leader of the free world, but African Americans lost under his leadership," said Smith, who led the effort to integrate Prince George's County schools and businesses in the 1960s. "My sympathy goes to his family, but as far as his leadership in this country, he didn't do us any favors."
Don Richardson, 40, a member of the choir of men and boys at National Cathedral, said he will participate in the state funeral Friday. "It's not an easy one to sort out," said Richardson, reflecting on his views of Reagan's presidency and his own role in the funeral. "Regardless of the president and what I might think of him, it's a matter of the office and honoring a leader of this country," Richardson said. But he added: "There were some significant social blind spots during his presidency that are difficult to forgive."
"We were thinking about him," said Tom Dabney, 53, a lawyer who attended St. Mary's. "I think of him as a very charismatic, well-meaning person who did a lot to help the country regain its spirit. At the same time, he left the country open to serious problems we face today: the AIDS crisis, [the] plight of the mentally ill, [a] sense of entitlement amid the upper class that is so often disguised as patriotism. He did a lot for a country that was in crisis, and for that he deserves to be recognized. I personally did not vote for him."
Although Reagan was never the most churchgoing of presidents, people said again and again that they admired his convictions and spoke of a man whose deeply held beliefs were almost a religion unto themselves.
"It comes back . . . to sincerity," said Bill Walker, 89, a retired engineer who served in the Navy during World War II and who attended Fourth Presbyterian on River Road yesterday. "He always came across in a sincere manner."
Kerby Glenn, 52, an architect from North Palm Beach, Fla., who was attending the Bethesda church with family from the area, said Reagan transcended the ordinary measures of faith. "People of faith recognize character and spiritual beliefs," Glenn said. "Going to church is not the only test of belief."
The strongest beliefs Reagan evinced were about the United States and in its supremacy -- sentiments many Americans found heartening during the turbulent, uncertain 1980s.
"He was a strong president," said Patricia Bielaski, a 73-year-old legal clerk from Northwest. "He inspired confidence."
The president's spirit sent a message to his own people and to the people of the world, she said. "The world respected us."
At McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Gainesville resident Judi Graves, 33, called Reagan's faith "very private," especially in comparison with the current president's. She said Reagan's references to God in the wake of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 gave insight into his true feelings.
"For Christians, it was very comforting that he would give that over to God," she said. "I've always kept him in my prayers because I felt he turned the country around."
People of other faiths remembered the former president yesterday. Parents picking up their children from Jewish Sunday school at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria said they respected Reagan's "neutrality" on religion, disparaging President Bush's faith-based initiatives.
"Unlike Bush, I don't think Reagan was spending much of the budget on Christian organizations," said Barry Yatt, 47, a professor of architecture at Catholic University. "He had more respect for [the separation of] church and state."
Wahid Eshaq, a 34-year-old engineer from Greenbelt, was about to participate in prayer at the Prince George's Muslim Association Mosque in Lanham when he paused to reflect on Reagan.
"To me, compared to President Bush, Reagan was much more closer to the center of American politics," Eshaq said. "Whatever African Americans experienced in the '60s in terms of discrimination, the Muslim community is experiencing it today. President Reagan was more like a national leader. It was a sad day yesterday because he was one of the better presidents from a global perspective."
At McLean Bible Church, Reg Babcock, 56, said part of Reagan's status as an icon stemmed from his sense of the place religion has in American society. "He reinforced [the idea] that if we're a religious people and we embrace that, America will be stronger," Babcock said.
Staff writers Henri E. Cauvin, Annie Gowen, Hamil R. Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, Ian Shapira and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company