Easter Sunday with POTUS and FLOTUS
Well, there were all kinds of things I was planning on updating you about today… our exciting trip to U.S Ikea on Friday, Saturday’s beautiful walk down the National Mall during the Cherry Blossom Kite Festival, and an eye opening visit to Wholefoods Market near Dupont Circle. But they’re all going to have to wait, because nothing tops this morning for an all-American, heart-thumping, tell-the-grandchildren Experience.
Husband is a former professional choral singer (a tenor, since you ask) and when it came to deciding on a church to go to for Easter Sunday morning, he was keen that we pick one with a good choir. Having already been to the National Cathedral for Palm Sunday last week, where the choir is excellent, we knew that today’s main service there was going to be ticketed, and decided we didn’t stand much chance of getting in. So last night, I googled ‘church with good choir in Washington D.C’. The one that came up was called St John’s, Lafayette Square
, opposite the White House. Its website looked good, and we noted that it was quite old – it said every president since James Madison in 1816 had worshipped there.
How nice, we thought. What a lovely bit of history.
So we set off for the 11am service at 10.30, and upon nearing the church, discovered the street it was on was cordoned off with yellow tape. There were men with walkie talkies and earpieces, squad cars and blacked out Hummers… we thought it was rather strange for a Sunday morning and asked one of the officers why. “I can’t tell you that ma’am,” was the stony faced reply… the implication being, “because then I’d have to kill you.” We thought perhaps there’d been a big crime or a senior foreign dignitary had arrived, but fortunately managed to get around to the church via another street.
Outside it was an absolute mass of people, all dressed extremely smartly (in that very American way- blue blazers and chinos for the men, tailored twin sets and bouffant hair for the ladies) and waiting very patiently while men in black with earpieces walked around looking serious. One lady turned to us as we walked up and said, ‘Has He Arrived?’ You would have thought she was talking about Jesus (considering it was Easter Day, we should have said, ‘Yes, He is Risen Indeed…’) but instead, we were JUST beginning to realise what was going on. Barack Obama was going to turn up.
We certainly didn’t think we’d be able to get into the church, given the crowd outside and the fact that the building itself looked rather small. (It’s a fairly ordinary looking steepled, gabled, American style church.) But we thought it would be nice to hang around and see if we could catch a glimpse of the leader of the free world as he arrived. So we stayed in line while one of the deacons came out to say hello to the waiting crowds. ‘The good news is… Jesus is alive!’ was her line. The bad news was that we’d have to stay outside for a bit longer. Eventually the secret service men at the door started letting people in, searching their bags and sweeping everyone individually with a metal detector. The queue started snaking forwards, and we were still in it… so we just kept moving, and before we knew it, we were inside! We headed straight for the upstairs gallery, where there still seemed to be room, and kept moving forwards til we got a front row seat.
The church was in darkness as we got to the front, and they were just starting the procession of the Easter candle while a cantor sung the introit. All through this we were obviously scanning the crowd below, but I couldn’t see any sign of the President. I wondered if he’d make an entrance later. He certainly wasn’t on the front row. Then, just before a brass quintet played an introduction to ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’ and the lights began slowly to come up, I saw a woman who looked just like Michelle Obama in a pew about halfway back. And then I realised it WAS Michelle Obama, sitting with Sasha and Malia and the man himself. I wish I could be soignée about this but a) I hadn’t realised the whole family would be there, and b) they were RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. I’d never realised how childlike these kind of situations render you… you want to point and stare, because they do look JUST as you see them on the television. And have I mentioned that they were RIGHT THERE?
So somehow, we had ended up with almost the best seats in the house in terms of getting a view of the ‘First Family’, despite only having decided to turn up the night before, and having no idea they would be there. The service itself was excellent, with very good music, but of course we spent most of it sneaking glances at the Presidential Pew, which had a line of three secret service men with earpieces sitting behind it. (They didn’t sing any of the hymns or take part in the service at all, I noticed… I suppose it’s a distraction from the job…) Barack and Michelle are just as good looking and toned in real life – and he spent most of the service with his arm cosily around her. She was wearing a silvery grey silky looking dress with a black flower print, while Malia was in purple and Sasha in red. They were both, as you’d expect, scrupulously behaved, taking part, not fidgeting and singing all the words. They’ve clearly all learned to keep poker faces too – the vicar’s sermon was very on-message for the present administration, mentioning the ‘captains of the religious right’ trying to take the country backwards
on issues including immigration and gay marriage. It was clearly designed to please. But no heads were nodded, no eyelashes were batted. They just looked very relaxed.
During Communion, we went downstairs and as a result, were able to walk Right Past their pew on our way back. So yes, when I was a couple of feet away, yes, I made eye contact and smiled, and yes, he smiled right back. And yes, I’m aware how much of a teenage groupie I sound. But there is something exhilarating about being in the same room as somebody quite that well known and powerful – made all the more so for us because it was so unexpected. The family were all very gracious too, I noticed, shaking hands with people who came up and talked to them during the peace, even (Michelle) hugging a couple of them. And it turns out they walked to the church from the White House
too, which is nice and ‘normal’ (the church is about as close as you can get to the WH, but still, they eschewed that Beast of a limo for once!)
The service ended with a congregational rendition of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from the ‘Messiah’, complete with brass quintet, which was absolutely stunning… followed by a hymn, during which the First Family quietly slipped out of their pew and out of a side door. You could sort of feel the atmosphere deflate a bit once they’d gone. But it had been a truly unforgettable service, and after the final ‘go in peace’, we were completely buzzing (a buzz that continued when we got home to discover that Oxford won the Boat Race…) I suppose in our entire time in D.C, however long or short it turns out to be, we’ll never get as close to any President as that ever again. It seems quite a high on which to begin!
The crowd that greeted us outside St John’s church
The First Family… third row in from the left (I know it’s bad to take photos in church, but the journalists in us couldn’t resist.)
You can definitely tell it’s them, right?!
Greeting people during the Peace