WASHINGTON -- President Obama opened his first full day in office at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday (Jan. 21) with a diverse array of religious leaders, including the ceremony's first-ever woman preacher, who urged him to hold onto his "ethical center" as he leads the nation.
"There are crises banging on the door right now, pawing at us, trying to draw us off our ethical center -- crises that tempt us to feed the wolf of vengefulness and fear," said the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in her sermon.
"We need you, Mr. President, to hold your ground."
Watkins was the first woman to preach at the interfaith prayer service that's traditionally held at the cathedral on the day after the inauguration. Her sermon encouraged Obama to "listen to the better angels of your nature."
Watkins' presence in the pulpit reflected a new emphasis on diversity in the service, which observers said also mirrored the aims of the administration that now occupies the White House.
"I think the choice of the people that participated was a choice that represents the diversity of America ... the religious, racial/ethnic and gender diversity of America," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, after the service.
"It was really quite remarkable. But I think, even more, over the last couple of weeks, (it reflected) the effort in the transition team to reach out to the faith community to really hear what they had to say to get their views and to talk about ways of working together. That is really encouraging."
Gathered beneath the Gothic cathedral's soaring arches and stained glass, the speakers reflected recent shifts among American religious groups -- the first-ever female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church was there, as were female representatives of Islam and Hinduism.
There were other changes, as well: no member of Billy Graham's family, for example, spoke. Two evangelicals -- Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, and Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in suburban Atlanta -- led prayers for political leaders.
"Very often at these kinds of official services, there's a sort of fallback to the traditional leadership from the older generation," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who led a prayer. "I think what happened today was a reflection of the reality of religious leadership in our time, which is that it is diverse. ... Women are involved in great numbers in all the traditions."
More than 1,900 invited guests joined Obama for the 90-minute service. He was joined in the front row by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In his welcome, the cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, said it was an honor to welcome the nation's first African-American president and join him in prayer for the new administration.
"We've come together from many different faiths and perspectives to offer our hopes and prayers to them for their work ahead," he said.
It was one of the few events during inaugural festivities at which Obama did not speak, although he joined the congregation in the hymns and sang along as a children's gospel choir performed "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
Watkins' sermon reflected the theme of diversity by incorporating elements from the unofficial black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the words of Mahatma Gandhi and recent efforts by Muslim leaders to seek peace by focusing on love of God and neighbor.
She urged the president and other leaders to continue to seek justice and the common good.
"This is the biblical way," she said. "It is also the American way-- to believe in something bigger than ourselves, to reach out to neighbor to build communities of possibility, of liberty and justice for all."
By Adelle M. Banks