Meeting the President of the United States

It’s been awhile since my last blog post and I have a lot of catching up to do. Over the last four months, I’ve traveled to Germany, Scotland, England, Canada and Brazil. Those trips were all in the name of business, of course, but since it was my first visit to all (except England) they deserve their own blog posts. And I plan to do so. But first…

I had a very fascinating experience right here in Washington, DC in April, almost exactly 7 months to the day that I arrived in DC. I’ve been asked by several people to blog about it. It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime event, so for the sake of posterity, here goes:

It was Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012. As I do every Easter, I had planned to go to church. I’ve been going to St. John’s Episcopal Church since I moved here. It’s nicknamed The President’s Church because every US President since James Madison in 1816 has attended church here at some point. And for good reason: it’s located directly across from The White House, separated only by Lafayette Square. My friend Jocelyn has been blessed to see the Obamas there at least twice, as well as both George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. at different times.

I had been told that the 11 a.m. service tends to fill up quickly and the church usually has to turn people away. So, I planned to arrive an hour early to guarantee I could get in. As I arrived at 10 a.m. on the Metro, and turned the corner onto H Street, I knew something important was happening. About 20 Secret Service officers were surrounding the entrance to the church. They all wore dark suits with earpieces and a small circular lapel pin indicating secret service. Disappointed, I figured the President was inside the church already for the 9 a.m. service. I missed him again! At the entrance, the usher handed me a program. “The 9 a.m. service is still going on, so you might want to sit in the Parish Hall and have some coffee while you wait,” he said. “Oh, and if I were you, I’d get in there pretty quickly. The President is coming to the 11 a.m. service.”

I smiled, thanked the usher and remained calm. But inside, I was so excited. Giddy, actually. I didn’t miss him after all. I quickly entered through the side door and into the Parish Hall. It was virtually empty and I kept expecting the Secret Service to approach me and ask me to wait outside. But they never did. As the 9 a.m. service ended and the people filed out, they brought in the bomb-sniffing dogs to sweep the church. The handful of us who were waiting in the Parish Hall were scanned by metal detecting wands by the Secret Service. And then, we were the first ones allowed into the sanctuary.

The President has a special pew reserved just for him. It’s about 10 rows from the alter and has a bronze plate indicating it as such. The row in front of it and behind it had reserved signs. And the rows across the aisle had reserved signs. But the row exactly across the aisle from the presidential pew was empty and had no signs. I figured this had to be a mistake. If I sat there, I’m sure Secret Service would ask me to move – if I extended my arm out across the aisle, the President and I could touch. I took the risk and sat there anyway. I saved two seats next to me for Jocelyn and her friend who were on their way. I didn’t know, however, that poor Jocelyn had been turned away at the entrance due to capacity.

The Presidents’ Pew at St. John Episcopal Church

Surprisingly, nobody asked me to move. The church filled up to capacity. And just before the service started, the Obamas – Barack, Michelle, Sacha and Malia – entered through a side door to a standing ovation. Then they walked towards me and filed into the Presidential Pew. I couldn’t believe it. President Obama was right next to me, separated only by an aisle. And all eyes were on him. Except mine because I didn’t want to be obvious and gawk at this proximity. Secret Service occupied the pew directly behind him. And the rest of the reserved pews were family and friends of the Obamas including the ones behind me.

And there we were having church together. I was so close I could hear his voice in the collective responses to the Reverend. Just after the Sermon and the Prayers of the People, there came The Peace. This is essentially where you greet your neighbor with a “peace be with you” and a handshake. I greeted those in the pew directly ahead of me and those behind me. And then in happened…

President Obama turned towards me and stepped out into the aisle at the exact same time that I turned towards him. He extended his arm and said “Happy Easter! And peace be with you.” I shook his hand and repeated his words back to him. I was surprised how warm his hand was and how his whole demeanor exuded warmth. He struck me as thinner than I imagined and tall, but not as tall as I imagined either. He graciously shook hands with those around me.

We continued on with Holy Communion. Since we were separated by an aisle, I took communion off to the side while the Obamas went to the alter. However, on the way back to our pews we ended up walking side by side. I smiled at Sacha and she smiled right back at me. Michelle saw this and nodded towards me. She said “Happy Easter” as I took my seat. I watched as the congregation filed past their pew and smiled and nodded at the President and his family. The choir led the singing of Handel’s “Hallelujah” towards the end of the service and I had to admit it was the perfect song to describe what I was feeling.

As the final song “Welcome Happy Morning” was sung, I tried to figure out a plan to take a photo of the President and his family. My big plan was to have my iPhone ready as soon as the service ended and sneak a photo as the President shook hands with people. But, of course, Secret Service escorted the President out of the church during the song and I missed my big chance. I still hold onto hope that the church photographer managed to click a picture of the President …. and maybe somewhere there’s a glimpse of me across the aisle.

A view of the alter of the church



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. PQ
    May 30, 2012 @ 16:09:41

    What a great experience 🙂


  2. Dad
    Jul 29, 2012 @ 21:33:39

    Did the President acknowledge Your Highness properly?


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