President in the pews: DC churches offer Biden options
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - His motorcade thunders through Delaware and growls traffic. Everywhere he goes he is surrounded by a security team and a group of journalists follow him.
But President-elect Joe Biden enters his church, St. Joseph on the Brandywine, with surprisingly little interruption.
Wearing a dark suit and medical mask, Biden recently slipped into a polished wooden bench in the back of the sanctuary for a Catholic mass on Saturday night. He was one of only about 40 believers whose participation was restricted by the coronavirus pandemic. His row was empty except for an intelligence agent who sat in the aisle and others who were stationed around the sanctuary. They had flak jackets under their clothes.
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This is one of the last places Biden can at least try to fit in, a luxury that is likely to fade completely when he takes office next month. Once he arrives in Washington, the insignia of the presidency - and the zeal of the city's residents to be close to power - could make an occasional church visit nearly impossible.
An official on the Biden transition team refused to say which church Biden could visit in the country's capital or whether he could at least initially return to Delaware to hold services there. Washington's COVID-19 measures are restricting large indoor services, and many churches have postponed services online.
Biden says Americans should be allowed to go to church "safely" during the pandemic, and his transition team has emphasized the importance of respecting local restrictions. However, if he does become a regular churchgoer in Washington, Biden has many options.
Four Catholic churches are located two miles from the White House. As Vice President, Biden attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington's Tony Georgetown neighborhood, where the country's only other Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, attended mass frequently before his inauguration.
Past presidents have made a variety of decisions - or none of them. Not far from the White House is New York Avenue Presbyterian, which maintains the bank where Abraham Lincoln once worshiped. Even closer is St. John's Episcopal Church, within walking distance of the White House via Lafayette Square, for the presidents who have historically worshiped there at least once.
St. John's hit the headlines this summer when police forcibly dispersed protesters so President Donald Trump could pose in front of the buttery yellow front doors with a Bible. But his status as the "Church of Presidents" goes back to James Madison and he is used to the special scrutiny that comes with accepting commanders in chief.
The Reverend Luis Leon, rector of St. Johns from 1994 to 2018, said the parishioners were very good at high profile visits: "They treated the president's worship experience as they would their own worship experience."
The VIP presence, however, had its own specific effects on the behavior of churchgoers. Leon joked that on days when the reserved "presidential bench" was occupied, the church would be "overturned" because so many parishioners wanted to sit on the same side of the sanctuary as the general manager, hoping to shake hands with him during the bishop to shake exchange of peace.
While Trump often consulted with spiritual leaders in the Oval Office, he never adopted a home church in Washington. He preferred private prayer, including with Rev. Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia-based mega-church pastor who recalled at least 10 visits to Trump on religious matters.
Franklin said the outgoing president is "always so receptive" to spiritual encounters.
“When we first met with him, we asked him, could we pray with him? And he was very open to it, very grateful, ”Franklin said.
Former President Barack Obama and his family attended the historically black Baptist Church on Nineteenth Street in the early days of his term. However, a competition arose among the city's houses of worship to attract the first family, and the Obamas never ultimately settled on a full-time church home in the capital.
Joshua DuBois, who was Obama's first term faith advisor, recalled finding a church as "a fine challenge".
"On the one hand, President Obama wanted to worship and worship God with local churches as often as he could and be in fellowship with others in his new home," DuBois said. But "we were very aware of the disruption of a presidential visit and wanted to be careful to limit this disruption as much as possible."
President George W. Bush chose to worship at Camp David many times during his years in Washington.
The Clintons were the last first family to attend church in town regularly. They became members of the Foundry United Methodist Church north of the White House on 16th Street, where the then young Chelsea was active in the youth group.
The pastor of the foundry at the time, Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, said he would help minimize the crowd by asking the congregation to remain seated at the end of the service so the Clintons can get off.
"Whenever he seemed a little sleepy, I thought, 'Well, at least today I can serve the people of the United States by giving their president a little break from my sermon," said Wogaman.
Biden's church attendance remains cautious for the time being.
He attends mass almost every week at St. Joseph's - a yellow church built in 1841 on land donated by manufacturing magnate Charles I. DuPont - less than a five-minute drive from his lakefront home in Wilmington. Biden sometimes goes on Saturday nights, but mostly on Sunday mornings, to be in attendance with his wife, Jill, or adult grandchildren, though he more often comes alone.
Biden attended mass on Friday to mark the anniversary of the death of his first wife and daughter, who died in a car accident in 1972 and were buried in the church cemetery. Buried there is his son Beau, a former Delaware attorney general who died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden occasionally attends mass in other churches such as St. Joseph in downtown Wilmington or St. Edmund near his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
That Saturday night at St. Joseph's, Rev. Glenn Evers did not recognize the incoming president at the center of the ward and instead warned anyone concerned about the possibility of catching the virus in order to stay away from the traditionally crowded Christmas Eve afternoon mass most Pews were cordoned off to allow social distance, but nearby parishioners could hear Biden softly reciting the Lord's Prayer.
When Evers asked them to turn around and say hello to their neighbors, they tried not to stare at the president-elect, who in return offered a warm but quick smile.
Biden's traveling press pool was waiting outside the church grounds, and bomb-sniffing dogs checked the area long before anyone arrived. Biden entered the church a few minutes late and was the first to leave the church at the end of the service to keep disturbance to a minimum.
He did this so effectively that the only sign he had ever been there was an intelligence agent lingering to hold the door open for others to be eliminated a few minutes behind the elected president.
"We have bothered you enough," said the agent. "It's the least I can do."
Schor reported from Washington.
Associated Press religion coverage is supported by the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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