The Rev. Sharon E. Watkins urged President Barack Obama on Wednesday to lead the country in a more hopeful direction, despite temptations to move away from his "ethical center."
"But we, the nation that you serve, need you to hold the ground of your deepest values, of our deepest values," the Indianapolis minister said at the National Prayer Service as Obama listened, his chin resting in his hand. "We need you to stay focused on our shared hopes so that we can continue to hope, too."
Watkins is the first woman to deliver the sermon at the prayer service, which concluded several days of inaugural events.
Ingrid Mattson, president of the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America, also read a prayer.
More than 3,000 people, including members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps and the Cabinet, attended the invitation-only event at Washington National Cathedral.
Watkins, 54, a graduate of Indianapolis' Shortridge High School and Butler University, leads the Indianapolis-based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with about 700,000 members.
She said she prepared the way she does for any other sermon. But she admitted to being challenged by the setting: a front row featuring the Obamas, the Bidens and the Clintons, and people such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the aisle.
"I had to work really hard to keep myself centered," she said after the service. "And since the sermon was about urging them to stay centered, I thought it was probably a good idea for me to take my own advice. I really tried to stay centered and realized that any sermon is about being a way for the spirit to speak."
In her 16-minute sermon, using what was at times a highly animated delivery, Watkins quoted Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the prophet Isaiah and Cherokee wisdom. She was one of a diverse cast of faith leaders who read prayers, including Jews, Hindus, Catholics and Muslims, the latter represented by Mattson.
"May we be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations," Mattson said. "We pray to you, oh God, saying, 'Keep this nation under your care.' "
Watkins came back several times to the Cherokee story of a grandfather explaining to his grandson that each person has two wolves struggling inside him, one full of anger, resentment and self-pity, and the other full of compassion, hope and truth.
When the grandson asks which wolf will win, his grandfather replies: "The one you feed."
Watkins repeatedly asked the audience: "Which wolf will you feed?"
Watkins tried to interact with the audience at times -- gesturing toward Obama and asking the audience to consider the sound of the name "Mr. President." And in referring to the presence of enemies who are out to get us, Watkins said: "Someone has to keep watch and be ready to defend, and Mr. President, tag, you're it."
Participants in the service were able to pose for a photo with Obama, his wife, Michelle, Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries before the service, Watkins said. But because the new president left immediately after the service, she didn't hear any feedback from him on her sermon.