He is a familiar sight, smiling and waving to drivers as they pass the Church of Our Redeemer on Route 50. He is the Rev. John Sheehan, the waving priest of Aldie.
Fifteen minutes before the start of each worship service, no matter the weather, Sheehan stations himself outside the front doors of the 125-year-old church and waves to passersby. He keeps waving until the service begins, pausing only to greet worshipers as they arrive.
Nearly all the drivers respond by waving back. Some honk, and some even pull into the parking lot. Sheehan estimates that in his 14 years as rector of the small Episcopal church, about 80 people have stopped to speak to him. Some have stayed for the worship service, and a few became members, he said.
He started waving to drivers in 2001 and has been doing it ever since, before the church’s services Wednesday mornings and Saturday evenings, as well as the two Sunday morning services.
“I would go out front and greet people as they were coming in,” he said. “But there’s always a gap. So I found myself turning around and waving to the cars going by.”
Sheehan, 67, said that the waving grew naturally from his outgoing personality and his professional background. Before entering the seminary in 1998, he worked for 35 years as a senior congressional aide and political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Some days he considers not going outside to wave, he said. “But each and every time I think that, the Lord sends me a reason to do it.”
One morning, he said, a woman drove past and then turned around and came back. She asked whether an atheist could go into the church. Sheehan told her that everyone is welcome.
“She came in and worshiped with us, and at the end of the service, she was the last one out,” he said. “She said, ‘I thought I came because of you. But that’s not why I came, is it?’ And over a few weeks, she became a believer.”
The waving has become an essential part of Sheehan’s ministry. A few years ago, a bishop asked him to consider moving to another church.
“I half-kiddingly asked if the church is on a main highway,” he said. It wasn’t, and Sheehan eventually withdrew his name from consideration.
“It didn’t feel right,” he said. “This is where I felt like I was called.”
Aldie residents and drivers who regularly pass through on Route 50 now expect to see the waving priest at the usual times. Church member Kay Skelton of Gainesville said people notice when he is away on vacation.
“If they don’t see him out there, they call and make sure he’s okay,” she said.
Sheehan said he is often recognized in public as the waving priest. When he visited a medical clinic in Lansdowne, a woman working at the front desk said, “You don’t recognize me, but I wave to you every Wednesday morning. I drive the white Volkswagen.”
“She said, ‘Please keep doing that, because it makes the beginning of the day the way it should be,’ ” Sheehan said.
Skelton recalled a visitor who attended a Wednesday morning worship service.
“It was her birthday, and she had been going past [the church] for a year,” Skelton said. “She had promised herself that on her birthday she was going to stop and worship with us. And she did.”
Sheehan said he expects to keep waving as long as he is at the church.
“I love doing it,” he said. “It’s the way the Lord has made me.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.