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A Church for the Obamas

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By Sally Quinn
Saturday, November 22, 2008; Page A15

Along with the speculation on what kind of puppy Sasha and Malia will choose, where the kids will go to school (it's Sidwell Friends), and, oh yes, who will be appointed to the White House staff and the Cabinet, the matter of where the Obamas will choose to worship is drawing a lot of interest in Washington and elsewhere.

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I would like to recommend Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral sits atop a hill overlooking all of Washington. It is an extraordinarily imposing structure whose beckoning towers can be seen from nearly every point in the city. It is also "The" National Cathedral. It's the place where, in recent years, presidents have gone for the inaugural prayer service the day after being sworn in, where ex-presidents are mourned at their death, where presidents and Americans as a people congregate during moments of crisis, as they did after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "The reality is that the cathedral serves as a sacred space for the nation," says Sam Lloyd, dean of the cathedral. "A place the nation looks to in critical times."

Washington National Cathedral also transcends politics and even the separation of religions. Though nominally an Episcopal church, it welcomes everyone. It is at once deeply Christian and deeply interfaith. The Episcopal Church has a long history of inclusiveness. The first black bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, John Walker, presided there. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church, was inducted there. And Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire was the first openly gay bishop in Christendom.

"We are a place that welcomes people of all faiths and no faith," says Lloyd, echoing Barack Obama's words of two years ago. "Whatever we once were," Obama said then, "we're no longer just a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of nonbelievers."

Until recently, the cathedral has been mainly a place where people from out of town have come to worship and marvel at the beauty of the stained-glass windows and exquisite stone carvings. Thousands of visitors from all over the country and the world pray there. Recently, though, under Lloyd's direction, the cathedral has made a major effort to build its own congregation. "We wanted people to have the experience of being part of a faith community," says Lloyd. "A space for people to come on their own terms."

The cathedral has its own security force and is used to, and adept at, discreetly helping to protect the presidents and vice presidents.

For these reasons and others, I believe the cathedral would be the perfect church for Barack and Michelle Obama to join. They would be sending a message to the rest of the country, as they did during the inspiring election campaign, that this is a pluralistic nation where everyone is invited.

The Jeremiah Wright episode, though hopelessly misunderstood by most Americans, drove Obama to give his speech on race in America. "The most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning," he said. For the first time, many white Americans were exposed to rhetoric inside a black church that shocked and surprised them. But what it really did was to expose a deep religious divide in the country.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of Washington National Cathedral. It was celebrated for an entire year, with the theme being reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu flew in from South Africa to kick off the large anniversary dinner. The church spent a week considering the subject of racial reconciliation, with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) delivering a Sunday sermon and playing a key role. There have been large conferences on gender and equality, with participation by women's advocacy groups from this country and the developing world.

The cathedral sponsors programs on interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais and people of other faiths. Former president Mohammad Khatami of Iran attended a Christian-Muslim-Judaic conference there in 2006. Twice a year, there is an Abrahamic roundtable with Bishop John Chane, Rabbi Bruce Lustig and professor Akbar Ahmed of American University's School of International Service. Last spring, a "Lighting to Unite" event concluded the centennial. The theme: "One Spirit among many nations." With a background of sound and lights, the festival drew believers and nonbelievers from all over the country. "We wanted them to experience their humanity," says Lloyd, "to have the sense that they shared a common life with each other."

I am drawn to the cathedral over all of the other sacred spaces in Washington because it is the most pluralistic of the places of worship I've been to.

On Nov. 12, Deepak Chopra, a Hindu, spoke there to a packed house. Asked about Obama in the question-and-answer session afterward, he said that the president-elect "has transcended religious identity. Just imagine when he puts his hand on the Bible to be sworn in and says, 'I, Barack Hussein Obama' . . . How wonderful!"

It would indeed be wonderful for the country to have a president who worshiped at a place most likely to welcome all Americans and all people of the world alike.

The writer is a moderator, with Jon Meacham, of On Faith, an online conversation on religion at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.


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