Monday, January 19, 2009

Witnessing the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama



Yes we did! We not only elected America’s first African American President and watched a Black first family move into a White House built by slaves…but more importantly (and more to the point, I think), we elected a wise, bold, determined, non-anxious, self-differentiated, good and strong Leader. One who not only may be able to rise to the great challenges of this present moment, but also loom large as an effective leader on the global stage. Still too early to tell, but in the words of Mordachi about Queen Esther: “Who knows if he has not been chosen for such a time as this?” We can only hope and pray and believe that God will work through this man with common roots and clay feet in the face of pending economic doom.

Yes, I was there…in Washington, at the tail end of the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, on the Mall on Monday to celebrate MLK holiday, and experience the Inaugural festivities at the Capital on Tuesday. I did feel the ‘ground begin to move beneath my feet” as President Barack Obama (love the sound of that name) alluded to on the day the world changed. What follows is my three day journal:

Sunday from Phili to DC


I had taken Amtrak from Newark to Philadelphia on Friday to co-teach a course with Tony Campola and Shane Claiborne on Spiritual Formation and Leadership for Spring Arbor University’s Masters in Spiritual Formation program, and had enjoyed a wonderful opportunity to introduce Henri Nouwen’s approach to spiritual direction to 110 students in the 2 year program. Since I knew I would be just 2.5 hours from Washington DC on the weekend of the Inauguration, I had made plans to attend.

Plan A was for my friend, Paul Moore to rent an RV in upstate New York, drive it to New Jersey to pick me up, drive together into DC, and park it at a local church in the city, and use it as our hotel for the weekend. Logistical challenges and security restrictions during the Inaugural events cast doubt on the wisdom of this approach.

When Plan A fell apart, Plan B went into effect: My wife, Rebecca, daughter Megan, and her friend Liz, would drive down to pick me up Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, and together we would drive to Washington to stay for two nights on the floor of Foundry United Methodist Church, plus a third night in a hotel.

Plan B worked like a charm. En route to DC, we were amazed that there were no bottle necks, closed roads or security check points all the way to the church. We listened with joy to the “We are One” Inaugural concert broadcasting live from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial featuring some of my favorite performers, including: Bruce Springsteen, Bono an U2, Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Wonder.



We arrived after Barack Obama spoke to the massive crowd. We dropped off our stuff at the church and headed to the Lincoln Memorial to catch the last of the Concert. Walking back to the church, we checked into our Sunday school rooms, laid out sleeping bags on the floor (I managed to get a couch), and got ready for the church concert later tonight.

“Be the Change you want to see” weekend at Foundry UMC”


Foundry United Methodist Church is located near DuPont Circle about 2 miles from the Capital building. The congregation rolled out their rose carpet of radical hospitality to over 50 visitors to the city this weekend. Challenged by their Bishop, John Schol, to live out their identity as a church with “open hearts, open doors, open minds”, they hosted 3 youth groups and adult supervisors, and other visitors from Iowa, Ohio, Texas, and NJ, who wanted to witness the Inauguration and feel the energy of a new day.


Mark Miller and his choir from Drew as well as the Foundry Church Choir and an ensemble from Uganda performed in the New Spirit concert in the sanctuary tonight. Fellowship Hall was decorated with patriotic colors, television monitors set up, and free meals were offered to visitors. There was even an Obama cardboard figure with whom to get your picture taken.


Donations were accepted to support the church’s “Nothing But Nets Campaign” to supply simple nets to help prevent Malaria in Africa. Send a Net, Save a Life at www.nothingbutnets.net

A weekend of unique opportunities for worship, workshops, fellowship and community service was organized by Mark Schol, youth pastor at Foundry, including making sandwiches for a nearby homeless shelter, a day laborer outreach on Rhode Island Ave, a local park reclamation project, and justice learning workshops led by professors from Wesley Seminary.



The men were in a room called the Tower. One of my floor mates was Tommy from Texas and his brother. He had won two tickets from a lottery, so he flew in from Houston for the occasion. My other roommate was King from Demoines, Iowa, and Paul Moore from Andes, NY. (Paul arrived at the side door of the church about 3am and called me on my cell. I went down to let him in and set off the security alarm. Thankfully, no one was hurt.)


First night in the Foundry Hostel: warm floor (or couch)and good food. Showers were available across the street and around the corner at the Jewish Community Center. Members of the congregation cooked a good meal for 89 of us visitors. A good night’s sleep was had by most. A church with open doors and open hearts is the way should be.


Monday--the Day MLK's Joy was Complete


Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s National Holiday on the Washington Mall was a rare treat. Beautiful day. Tens of thousands were walking about enjoying the positive energy and good will of anticipation of tomorrow’s celebration. I felt euphoric enough to go into a Krispy Kreme store, buy a dozen delicious warm donuts right out of the oven, and give them to strangers I ran into on the streets and on the metro. Sure enough, these random acts of kindness to strangers engendered good natured gratitude and good will.

We decided to see the relatively new National Museum of the American Indian and its featured exhibit: “Out of Many: A Multicultural Festival of Music, Dance and Story. “ An impressive display of world cultures represented by individuals from American Indian, Africans, African American, Asian and Pacific Islander traditions. We toured several tribal exhibits in the 4-story museum, especially the Black Foot tribe that Rebecca’s ancestry connects to and the Cherokee tribe of which I am a 1/32 bloodline.


After lingering at the Capital for awhile, again anticipating the big event to take place on the steps tomorrow, we walked up the Mall toward the Washington Monument through the crowds, and came upon a live broadcast by Chris Mathews on MSNBC. As their remote camera swung above the heads of the crowd, we all waved into the eye of the camera hoping to be spotted by families and friends possibly watching tonight.
Before leaving the Mall, we scoped out a good place to stand tomorrow upon our return in the morning. We wanted to be as close to the Capital as we could, and near a giant jumbotron screen.

Tuesday—the Day the Ground Shifted Under our Feet


For me, this is an auspicious day. Today the Change I had hoped for will begin to be realized in the changing of executive powers and leadership in the White House. The contrast between Bush and Obama cannot be under-stated.



‘We the People’ fortunate enough to have tickets to the Inauguration had the luxury of waiting till late morning to find the way to their reserved seats or designated area to stand near the Capital.

‘We people’ without tickets or connections had to make a strategic choice: find a place on Pennsylvania Avenue to view the parade; or find a place on the Washington Mall to view the swearing in ceremony. We were urged to get there early to find a spot the size of a folded newspaper to stand squarely on the Mall.


So my family and I decided to get up at 6:30am, forgo showers, and walk 2 miles toward the Capital via the National Mall. Paul Moore, Rebecca, Megan and her friend Liz and I arrived at the Washington Monument about 7:30am. We were joined by hordes of humanity who came by bike, bus, metro or on foot. Official volunteers greeted us with big smiles and enthusiastic words-- “Welcome to Washington” --as they handed us a small American flag to wave at the appropriate times.

Now I’ve never been a flag waving patriot, but I proudly took the red white and blue and wondered if they had enough flags to go around. What did it cost to make 2 million flags available to today’s expected visitors to the Mall?


We continued walking toward the Capital until it got too crowded to continue. We claimed our spot near a jumbotron TV screen opposite the Smithsonian Castle, just in back of the MSNBC broadcast unit at 10th Street where we were yesterday. There we stood with our flags rolled up at the ready, hands in pockets with hot packs, in 27 degree temperature (18 degrees in the wind) without access to food or bathrooms.

Megan and Liz wanted to get a little closer, in direct eye sight of the Capital. Didn’t want to but we let them venture off, as long as they were more or less within eyesight, could remember where we were standing, could remember where would be our meeting place at the close of the event, and as long as they kept their fully charged cell phones on at all times.


There was a super positive spirit, festive mood and high energy in the crowd. No one pushed too much or became aggressive in their behavior. No one said “get out of my space!” There was lots of laughter and good will. Strangers talked to each other and treated each other as friends. Some sang and others danced. I just jumped up and down to stay warm and cozzied closer to my wife. We met visitors from Texas, Florida, Virginia and Iowa. It was fun to feel patriotic again, and so connected to other Americans.


What an emotional experience is was for me to be there on the Mall, shoulder to shoulder, with 2 million, significant numbers of whom were African Americans who identified with Obama’s great achievement. I felt their energy and demonstrative delight…in realizing perhaps for the first time that a young black kid in the neighborhood could become President of the United States. You saw tears of joy on faces as disbelief turned into hope, as we all witnessed the historic moment when the earth shifted and the world changed. Barack Obama, stood on the steps of the nation’s capital, built by slaves, and beheld the mass of humanity packed on the Mall which was once a slave market. He must have recognized the kairos of the present moment when he referred in his speech to the phenomenon how “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Later today, an all-American Black family would take up residence in the White House, also built by slaves, backed the bricks and laid the foundation.

There was a mass of humanity as far back as the eyes could see. Much of the world would see the spectacle on television: Two million flags waving in the air. People dancing, singing and chanting with delight—O-Ba-Ma… O-Ba-Ma. A roar of joy and jubilation erupted when Michele and then Barack Obama finally appeared on the screen, and found his seat.

Rev. Rick Warren rose to offer the Invocation (see separate blog post) and Aretha Franklin belted out her song wearing a fabulous hat for the occasion.
Finally, Obama greeted the crowd, was sworn in as President, and delivered his long awaited Inaugural Address:

“As for our common defense; we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…” When he stated so clearly in his speech that American ideals, like personal liberties, and ethical values (like not torturing prisoners) would not be compromised because we were afraid for our safety, I thanked God for a prophet. “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency.” Amen!


When he said “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” I felt like he was trying to love America’s enemies, as Jesus taught.

When he said, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…” it felt to me like the ‘ground had shifted beneath our feet’ and the Change was afoot.

Over a million flags were waving high in the air, not by typical, conservative flag wavers, but by those who had just found they had a new stake in America’s future.
Did I mention before that we had to stand up for five hours in the cold! Yet, was an extraordinary, once-in-a-life time experience to stand shoulder to shoulder, and back to front, with 2 million Americans breathing the same air (the huddled masses yearning to breathe free).

Joanna Jackson, 63, a disabled New Yorker, according to USA Today, summarized my feelings as well when she said: “I know I’m going to feel it tomorrow, especially in my knees, but it’s worth it! I can say I was there.

Yael, me too. And I bought an “I was there” button to prove it.



The Servant Forge Humanitarian Inaugural Ball

Finally, our weekend was complete by attending an officially registered Ball—the Humanitarian Inaugural Ball at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA. Hosted by Jim and Colleen Copple, co-founders of Servant Forge, the event was a fund-raiser for several charities in Africa and the US, as well as a celebration for a “New Era of Humanitarian Service and Action” under a new administration.

The mission statement of Servant Forge is similar to that of WorldHoope Corps: “to build leaders who will transform communities and nations by practicing and promoting service and to challenge citizens to embrace service as a means to improve education, promote civic involvement, eradicate poverty, and guarantee health and safety…”

Current Projects include:
Swaziland HIV/AIDS Faith-Based Initiative
Kenya Youth Development Initiative
Methamphetamine Prevention and Treatment
City of Alexandria Gang Task Force
Underage Drinking


It was more fun to watch the dancing than to dance the night away, and simply enjoy my first Inaugural Ball--one for a good cause.