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Bridging Policy and the Pulpit

Leon then reminded Bush of the Puritan leader John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who entreated his English shipmates before reaching shore in 1630 to envision their new home as a "City on a Hill," an image from the Book of Matthew he used to promote the idea of a Christian society in which all worked, loved and suffered together, not as individuals.

"The acquisition of material worth certainly was in the agenda," Leon said of the Puritans' coming to America. "But the purpose of that City on the Hill was to create community, a community that would support an ethical and spiritual life."

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. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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That vision of community has been lost in recent years and must be restored, Leon said.

"I hope that you will invite us to be a good people, the people God created us to be . . . moving beyond the confines of political party, moving beyond the confines of red or blue states, moving beyond the confines that tend to separate us as a nation and as a people, recognizing in each and every one of us a unit of God's grace," he said.

"Rich or poor, poorly educated or well-educated, gay or straight, foreign-born or native-born, it makes no difference. We are one in God's eyes. And we are called, I think, to be a City on a Hill, a good people, a very good people, respecting and enjoying all the differences that exist in this land."

In the interview, Leon said his responsibility was to raise issues about which he felt strongly and let the president decide which actions -- if any -- he might take.

There was no mention of the war in Iraq, although the Sunday after the March 2003 invasion, Leon told his parishioners that war is "a failure of peacemaking, a digression from God's peace."

"Our Christian duty cannot be fulfilled with a military victory," he said. "But it is also true that war is sometimes a necessity. The future will tell us if this one was."

Leon would not say this week whether he supported the strike on Iraq. "I'm not sure I want to answer that for you," he said, adding that he had been conflicted.

He did offer a comment on the Middle East. "The whole Palestinian question is the overarching question," he said. "I think [the United States] has a very important role to play in how that gets determined."

In addressing the negative effects of fear, "I was really drawing from my own personal experience," said Leon, who came to the United States in 1961 and lived in an orphanage and with a foster family before his mother left Cuba in 1965. His father had died of cancer during the intervening years, and Leon never saw him again. Those early years of fear, of a sense of living in exile, gave way to a life of service to God and a "diminishing" of the emotion, he said.

The church has been a constant support, he said, and provided financial assistance for him to attend the University of the South, an Episcopal school in Sewanee, Tenn. He received a master of divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and served churches in New Jersey and Delaware before coming to Washington.

Founded in 1815, St. John's is called the "church of the presidents" because 40 White House residents, beginning with the fourth president, James Madison, have worshiped there. George H.W. Bush chose the church for his inaugural prayer service, and he and Barbara Bush attended frequently during his term as president.

President Bush and his wife worship at St. John's once or twice a month, typically at the 8 a.m. service, and Leon considers them members even though they remain on the rolls at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Technically, Bush is a "communicant" in the Episcopal Church because his baptism is recorded in an Episcopal parish, and he has taken Communion in an Episcopal church -- St. John's -- at least three times in the past year, according to the Rev. Jan Nunley, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church.

The president was baptized Dec. 14, 1946, at Dwight Memorial Chapel, a venue shared by Christian, non-Christian and secular groups at Yale University. The Rev. Luther Tucker, an Episcopal priest who was then director of Dwight Hall, Yale's center for public service and social justice, performed the ritual on behalf of the Rev. Albert Wilson, rector of Christ Church in Greenwich, Conn., according to Sally Herring, the church's secretary.

Both priests signed Christ Church's registry, in which Bush's baptism was recorded, she said.

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