As the sun emerged above the National Mall on Sunday morning, thousands of voices rose to meet it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with a melodious version of “How Great Thou Art,” part of an Easter sunrise tradition dating back more than three decades.
Pastor Amos Dodge and members of Capital Church of Vienna have hosted an Easter service at the Lincoln Memorial for the past 34 years. While the church regularly has about 300 members, his congregation swells to several thousand during the outdoor Easter service.
With a lawn chair strapped to her shoulder, Andrea Fuller, 42, quickly made her way to the Lincoln Memorial for the start of the 6:30 a.m. service. As the sun began to beam above the U.S. Capitol, ushers handed out programs and greeted the throngs by saying: “He is risen.”
“This is not an event we sponsor, but an assignment we have to our city, our nation and world,” Dodge said in a written statement. With many churches and officials at Arlington National Cemetery hosting sunrise services across the Potomac River, the event at the Lincoln Memorial has become one of the region’s largest and most diverse expressions of faith on Easter Sunday.
Ceena Idicola of New York came to the service with some of her colleagues from an international internship program and spoke of how it joins people: “I think that this event really captures the heart of D.C., for all of us to come together and unite as one faith.”
Others felt similarly, speaking of the event as a beautiful and unifying one on a clear and cool Easter morning. Andy Bevan, 24, an intern from Scotland, said too often differences in faith pull people apart.
“We as Christians should come together and not have any barriers up,” Bevan said. “Jesus died and rose again for us, and this was a very positive thing.”
After songs from his choir, Dodge left the stage, walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and led the audience in singing “Amazing Grace.”
“There is something about Amazing Grace that says it better than any other song because God’s grace is amazing,” Dodge said. “When we were unlovely, he loved us; when we were unforgivable, he forgave us. . . . I love this service because we come from so many backgrounds.”
Though he had been working to set up the stage and chairs for the event since midnight on Sunday, Andre Powell, 35, was in great spirits when the program began. “It is just a joyous occasion to be able to spend time with my family and serve the Lord,” Powell said.
President Obama attended Easter services at St. John’s Church Sunday morning, the third time he has visited the church on Lafayette Square near the White House since December. Powell said he plans to invite the president to come to the sunrise service on the Mall next year.
“In the 34 year history of this event, we have never had a president come,” Powell said.
Following Dodge’s sermon, ushers and ministers from the church passed out bibles as Dodge offered prayers and encouragement to those who came forward. As worshippers folded and stacked chairs at the end of the event, Dodge said it was a joy “to celebrate the resurrection with so many happy people.”
Obama and the first family walked to St. John’s for Easter services led by the Rev. Luis Leon, the church’s rector. His message centered on the Gospel of Mark’s story of the empty tomb and the joyous rush to spread the news among Jesus’s disciples.
By chance, the president took a seat in the pew directly in front of Katie Flemming, an 11-year-old girl from Buffalo who had come to Washington for a White House tour and to collect the President’s Voluntary Service award. She and her family visited St. John’s because it is across the street from the Hay-Adams Hotel, where they were staying. Katie, who won the award for Operation Thank You, Soldiers, an elementary school project that made packages and cards for military personnel, was delighted when she got to shake the president’s hand during a segment of the service when parishioners greet each other.
“It is an Easter miracle,” said the girl’s mother, Kathy Flemming, a Buffalo bank owner.
More than a thousand people filled the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in the District for a noon Mass in Spanish. There were little boys in shiny white suits with bow ties and girls swaddled in clouds of colorful lace, but many more were dressed in jeans or T-shirts. They spilled into the aisles and stood two deep in back as the dusky stone nave filled with incense and music.
“Que viva Cristo! Cristo esta resucitado!” the Rev. Kevin Thompson said in welcoming the crowd to a joyous celebration that included the baptism of about two dozen children in a rite that signifies a spiritual rebirth within the church.
Some were old enough to be soaked with a bowed head and a show of stoicism. But one little beauty, her hair in pigtails, seemed perfectly calm until the priest poured a basin of holy water over her head, causing her to kick and wail as the priest intoned a blessing. The congregation chuckled and applauded as Thompson held the wet baby above his head.
After accepting Communion and a final blessing, the crowd turned out into an afternoon filled with sunshine and cool breezes.
“This feast gives us hope,” Thompson said afterward. “It’s a day that reminds us that nothing is impossible.”
Luis Marroquin, 53, who attended with his two daughters, Christian, 14, and Jaqueline, 12, said he would never miss Easter rites at his church. But he also said that as lovely as the service and celebrations were, they were nothing compared with the Easter festivities in his native El Salvador. There, Easter is one of the most solemn and festive holidays of the year, and its celebration goes on for several days.
“Right now, we just go home, maybe have a dinner and go back to work,” said Marroquin, who owns Taqueria Distrito Federal in Columbia Heights.