President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence began their first full day in charge of the U.S. government by attending an interfaith prayer service at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, where the clergy spoke of compassion and diversity.
The service began with calls to prayer by the cathedral’s canon, the Reverend Rosemarie Duncan; a Jewish cantor, Mikhail Manevich; and Muslim Imam Mohamed Magid.
The cathedral’s dean, the Very Reverend Marshall Hollerith, then read from the Book of Common Prayer: “Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love.”
Leaders of about two dozen religious faiths took part in the service, a U.S. tradition dating back to the country’s first president, George Washington. Trump and Pence were joined by their families, as well.
Washington National Cathedral, a spacious Episcopal house of worship, is a landmark in the capital, standing on one of the highest points in the city, and has hosted prayer services at the beginning of new administrations since before World War II.
“It was a fantastic gathering of all the religions that are part of our lives in America, with beautiful music and beautiful prayers,” Alistair Jessiman told VOA as he left the service afterward.
Jessiman said he attended the service as a patriotic gesture and to support the new president, whom he said he had never seen in person before.
Given the harsh exchanges that marked so much of the U.S. political campaign, about “building a wall [on the Mexican border] … banning Muslims from entering the United States” and other controversial issues, Jessiman said he felt everyone could benefit from some spiritual reflection.
“People getting together [and] spending time thinking about other things than what’s personal for them makes a big difference and will help as the country moves on,” he said.
Starr Karavellas, whose husband is an orthodox priest, said they came to the service to honor the new president, whom she and her husband “love.” She added that all Americans should give Trump and his team “a chance” to show what their programs can accomplish.
Michael Raphael was proud to be part of the service because his company worked on the extensive and difficult campaign to repair $34 million in damage the cathedral suffered after an earthquake in 2011.
The iconic Washington church is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the second-largest in the United States. It took 83 years to build, from 1907 to 1990.
As a small-business owner, Raphael said he’s neutral when it comes to politics but was pleased to see so many religious faiths represented during Saturday’s prayers. Trump “needs to hear that,” he said.
While he wishes the president the best of luck in his new job, Raphael added, “It’s very unlikely that anything will affect the way that Mr. Trump views the world in terms of religion. Although it would be interesting to see if he does take away anything from today, with a comment of some sort.”
Hayley Ringenberg, another member of the congregation, told VOA that just being together with leaders of so many different faiths emphasized to her the need to “stop the arguing and fighting. … Simply love each other.”
Joel Pollak said many of the congregants in the cathedral had tears in their eyes during the moving service. He said the hymns and scriptural readings were very appropriate, in particular a selection from the Bible (1 Kings 3:5-12) where Solomon asks God not for riches and long life, but for wisdom.
“I felt in many ways this was the heart of the inauguration,” Pollak said. “It was the nation coming together in humility, praying together and asking God for help.”
Political divisions among Americans are part of life, and perhaps they will be felt more intensely in the coming months, Pollak added, “but hopefully those who were present [at the cathedral] and those who watched throughout the country will remember how joyful it was to be together, because it’s moments like these that will guide us through the difficult times.”
Mythili Bachu, chairperson of the Council of Hindu Temples of North America, told VOA “it’s very important to us” that Hindus were represented at a national prayer breakfast for the first time.
“This was a representation of the United States, and showed that everyone felt they belong to the same country, regardless of their religious beliefs,” Bachu said.
Neither Trump nor Pence spoke during the ceremony, but images beamed from the cathedral suggest they enjoyed taking part.
Ironically, at the same time the cathedral service got underway, hundreds of thousands of Trump’s opponents were gathering near the U.S. Capitol for a huge protest demonstration denouncing the new administration’s policies.