The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the shadow of the Washington Monument, a Christian group attempts 14 months of nonstop prayer

Jason Hershey raises his arms in prayer inside David’s Tent. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

As the tourists stroll the Mall around the Washington Monument, one by one they notice the tent.

The white plastic, lit by the glow of a color-changing bulb like a disco dance, stands out against the grassy expanse and stone memorials. And wait — they move closer — is that music?

The people inside David’s Tent are just waiting for those tourists to draw back the flap and step in.

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The tent was pitched seven months ago by a nondenominational Christian nonprofit group committed to performing nonstop worship music on the Mall for 14 months, from last Sept. 11 to November’s Election Day. This week, they reached their halfway point.

In seven months, they’ve met seekers of every age and faith, looking for a bit of peace or a shoulder to cry on or just a place to rest their feet before resuming their sightseeing. They’ve handed out free Bibles and tiny do-it-yourself communion kits and earplugs for anyone who can’t take the amplified hymns. They’ve heard “Amazing Grace” played on God knows how many instruments.

And their prayers, they say, are changing the nation. “The moral compass of our country is off,” said Jason Hershey.

Hershey, the founder of David’s Tent, says there’s no political agenda behind the vigil despite its significant start and end dates and its striking location right in the heart of the Mall — just below the Washington Monument, directly south of the White House, with views of the World War II and Jefferson memorials from inside its clear plastic walls.

“Is this intercession for a certain political party? Not at all. But election season creates a conversation about the direction of our country like no other season does, and in the midst of that conversation, we want to lift up Jesus above all other names,” Hershey said, the walls of the tent billowing around him. He refuses to endorse a candidate, although he does say he wouldn’t recommend Bernie Sanders since he wants a president who believes in Jesus. Many who enter the tent bring up politics, and staff members consistently steer the conversation to another topic.

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Hershey, 40, came up with the idea of a tent devoted to constant worship music years ago, when his deep concern over a lack of civility in American daily life drove him to take time off from his job in a D.C. ministry.

“There was this new question that formed in my heart. When a nation is at its utmost best, what is it doing?” he said. He thought he found the answer in a somewhat obscure passage in the book of Chronicles. In between long genealogies of the someone-begat-someone variety, the book mentions that King David tasked 4,000 men with working at the temple to “praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose.”

“Is it a coincidence that those were the most blessed years of Israel’s history?” Hershey said last week, as a teen band from a Virginia church blasted a hymn with a lot of “hallelujahs” in it. He said King David had the right idea to set up the religious site near his palace. “He brought the Lord into a place of centrality and reverence.”

So Hershey decided to do the same, near the seat of American power. He obtained a permit for a worship tent on the White House Ellipse for 40 days leading up to the 2012 presidential election. In 2013, he did it again for 42 days, so he could say his continuous worship service was 1,000 hours long. Then 50 days in 2014, in order to pray for each state for one day.

David’s Tent became a 501(c)(3), with a board of directors and a staff of 40. And this year, the organization is in the midst of its largest project by far. By Election Day, the people in the tent will have been making music for 10,000 hours, playing in front of three rows of folding chairs in a plastic box about 30 feet long on each side.

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Michael Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said anyone can obtain a permit for up to four months for a demonstration on the Mall, and can renew it indefinitely. David’s Tent currently has permits on file through July, he said, and is nowhere near the longest vigil — there’s been a group at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial continuously since 1985, among others. Permit applications cost at least $120 and ask questions about the users’ activities on the Mall.

On Monday, the halfway point of David’s Tent’s planned 14-month vigil, the Park Service asked David’s Tent to move to a new spot near the World War II Memorial so the grass below its old spot can be renovated.

Hershey said it costs $25,000 a month to run the tent, funded by donations. The multi-denominational staff that works there full-time, in shifts that ensure that at least five people are always on duty, does not earn salaries, but their housing and food are mostly paid for by the organization.

The staff who have chosen to put their lives on hold while they pray for months on end, often in the middle of the night, are a diverse group, from a 17-year-old just out of high school to a 75-year-old.

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Darlyne Edgerton, 67, said she heard about David’s Tent soon after her husband died, and she decided to close the assisted living home that they had run together in Portland, Ore. Her five grown children don’t need her help much anymore, and the tent on the other side of the country sounded like the perfect place to go.

“Here’s a place where I can worship God 24/7,” she said. “This is like a vacation, a honeymoon with Jesus.”

Her house in Portland is being sold, and she said she doesn’t know where she’ll go after David’s Tent. But for now, she’s content spending afternoons waving the colorful flags someone left behind in the tent one day. She doesn’t play an instrument, but she’s become known among the staff for how loud her clapping can be.

Daniel Riffle, 19, came to David’s Tent at the urging of a tent staff member whom he’d once worked with at a summer camp. Riffle said he was addicted to cocaine and sleeping on friends’ couches, and when the tent staff asked him if he believed in God, he lied.

The first day, he said, he called his family in Middletown, Del. “These people are too nice. They love each other. This isn’t for me,” he recalls saying. His friend convinced him to stay the week.

By the third day, he said, he found himself accepting Jesus into his life. Now he’s 79 days sober, living in housing provided by David’s Tent, and circling the tent with his guitar at 10 p.m. on a cold Friday night.

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Outside, he sees a group of five teenagers walking up to the tent and urges them to come in. Before the high school students can make it to their seats inside, they’re greeted twice more by eager young staff members. All three ask if they’ve been here before (one has) and where they’re from (Georgia).

Conversation is hushed so as not to interrupt Gary McCord of Pennsylvania, who’s halfway through his two-hour guitar set. He’s the latest musician of the groups from 25 states who have signed up to play in the past month alone. One musician always picks up just before the other one finishes, so there’s never even a moment of silence between acts, except during the American Sign Language worship services.

When the teens leave 10 minutes later, McCord’s audience consists of four middle-aged listeners: one writing in one of the free Bibles provided in the tent and occasionally looking up to sing along for a verse, one staring at his smartphone, one gesturing with her hands, and one wearing sunglasses — even though it’s nighttime and she’s inside the tent — who might as likely be sleeping as praying. An older couple comes in, says they’ve been here before and sits down to cuddle in the front row. A few minutes after, a younger couple silently slips in to join them.

David’s Tent’s permit from the National Park Service bans sleeping in the tent, according to staff member Tony Long, who works the night shift. But he said he doesn’t check too closely.

Long, 21, has seen plenty of drunk people, whom he removes only if they’re disruptive. He knows that anyone who stumbles in might eventually participate in prayer. Like the woman gesturing along to McCord’s guitar tonight. She’s a regular. And later tonight, she ends up in conversation with a staffer, leaning close, full of emotion as they pray.

“If you’re not a social individual when you come in, you will be when you leave,” Long said. A native Washingtonian, he attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts and then two years at Fayetteville State University before coming home to try his hand at writing gospel music. Since joining the staff, he’s figuring out his compositions in front of an audience in the tent, rather than on his parents’ couch.

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Not that all visitors are innocuous. Staff members said they had to get a restraining order barring one man who seemed to be threatening violence. They saw his face on the news later — the 66-year-old minister from Tennessee was charged with pointing a gun at police officers at the Capitol.

But most nights, the tent is calm, bathed in colored light and filled with prayerful song. And sometimes something remarkable might happen. Hershey said a woman came in one night, clearly distraught. Staff members sat down to pray with her. And only as morning was starting to dawn did she show them the journal she carried with her, where she had written that she planned to commit suicide that night.

She wouldn’t do it, now that they had affirmed over and over that Jesus loved her, she said. “She walked out of here with purpose. Jesus that night literally saved,” Hershey said.

In that moment, he said, he saw the meaning of his project.

“That’ll change you, when you see the God of the Bible walking off the pages onto the National Mall.”

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