Manning the 'Church of the Presidents'

The Associated Press
Friday, January 19, 2007; 2:57 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Luis Leon may be one of the few people President Bush routinely looks up to.

When Bush looked up to him from a pew at St. John's Episcopal Church one recent Sunday, the message that came down from the chancel steps bore a striking resemblance to one that dominates secular Washington as well.

It was about the difficulty of making adjustments in one's life. "It requires the will to change," Leon preached, the Book of Common Prayer tucked under his left arm, his right hand pointing toward parishioners. "It requires the courage to acknowledge that you want to change, to change your direction."

Was he preaching to the president in the weeks before Bush announced the changes in his Iraq policy? No, Leon said firmly in a recent interview. "I never preach to the president. I preach to the congregation."

"My rule of thumb has been that he gets what everybody else gets and hope that some of it speaks to him."

When Bush attends, he sits nine rows back at St. John's, his church of choice and by tradition the "Church of the Presidents," just across Lafayette Square from the White House.

He listens to a priest who made an improbable journey to its pulpit.

Born in Guantanamo, Cuba, Leon came to the United States at 11, alone and without his parents as one of the "Pedro Pan" flights bearing children fleeing the island nation. He had a toothbrush, a few pieces of clothing and $3 when he landed in Miami, and he spent the next years in foster care. His mother arrived when he was a teenager, but he never saw his father again.

Bush, like many of his predecessors, sits in pew No. 54, which is marked by small brass plaque reading "The Presidents' Pew." The choice was President Madison's.

Every president since has attended at least occasional services at the pale yellow church.

"There would be a temptation in a church like that to play 'civil religion,' in other words to be a chaplain to the establishment," said the Rev. Kevin Bean, who worked with Leon at Trinity Church in Wilmington, Del. "But that's not Luis' style."

"He's political, but he's not partisan," Bean said of Leon's sermons. "He's civil, but he's not soft. He has part of the fiery Latino in him, which is a good thing."

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