Forty-four years ago, an 11-year-old Cuban boy came to the United States with a ditty bag, $3 in cash and the promise of a foster home until his parents could join him in Miami.
Last week, that immigrant child, now pastor of one of the country's most prominent and historic churches, experienced what he calls an "undreamt dream come true." Before thousands of onlookers and millions of television viewers, the Rev. Luis Leon offered the invocation at the second inauguration of President Bush.
The Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John's Church -- called "church of the presidents" for its popularity among chief executives -- called on President Bush "as a servant of God" to help restore national unity.
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The pride he experienced was matched by the honor he felt three hours earlier when he led a prayer service for the president and his family at St. John's Church, the yellow, white-steepled Episcopal church near the White House, Leon said in an interview this week.
Leon has been rector of St. John's since 1994, and in that time he has developed a reputation for speaking his mind about responsible leadership.
When President Bill Clinton was accused of sexual improprieties in 1998, Leon told parishioners that Clinton -- who attended St. John's several times a year -- "can be forgiven by God. . . . I don't think he has the moral authority to continue to lead this country."
At last week's prayer service, Leon called on Bush to guide the country out of the culture of fear created by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Leon said he was careful in preparing the prayer service homily and inaugural invocation to not cross the line from pastor to public policy adviser, "which is not my role." At both events, he celebrated the country's diversity and spoke subtly but firmly of the need to "renew the ties of mutual respect" that have broken down amid debates over cultural and political ideology.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Leon expressed thanks for "a new beginning in our journey as a people and a nation" and called on God to "shower the elected leaders of this land . . . with your life-giving spirit." He prayed on behalf of all Americans, he said, using such theologically inclusive terms as "most gracious and eternal God" and "we ask in Your most holy name."
At St. John's, where the president and first lady Laura Bush have worshiped frequently in the past four years, Leon's language was more direct and his focus more intent. About 300 people sat in the historic sanctuary, including two dozen members of the Bush family, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice -- since confirmed -- and other administration officials.
But his intended audience was one person, Leon said: the 43rd president of the United States. Speaking in a tone of respect but without relinquishing his position as Bush's spiritual leader that day, Leon charged Bush with the responsibility for restoring national unity and helping the country overcome its sense of fear.
"This is bold of me to be saying these things, but that's why we're gathered here," he said, turning his eyes toward the man sitting in the first pew with his wife and twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara.
"Fear clouds our judgment. Fear makes us parochial," the priest told the president. "Fear forces us to gravitate to inadequate solutions for our lives. Fear blocks us from seeing things clearly, and it forces us to act in two very paradoxical ways. We become deeply uncertain about the ground on which we stand. And, as if to overcompensate, we become overly certain in some of our actions."
He called on Bush to set a tone "by word and example and actions," to "move us forward to be a fuller, freer people not bound by those fears that limit us as human beings and as nations, but to free us to be the people whom God has called us to be."
He "commissioned" the president, "as a servant of God, to exercise your ministry and vocation as the leader of this land to help us overcome our fears . . . to not let our fear overwhelm our trust in God."