At D.C. church, Bush just 1 of the flock

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Rev. Luis Leon may be one of the few people President Bush routinely looks up to.

When Bush looked up to him from a pew at St. John’s Episcopal Church one recent Sunday, the message that came down from the chancel steps bore a striking resemblance to one that dominates secular Washington as well.

It was about the difficulty of making adjustments in one’s life. “It requires the will to change,” Leon preached, the Book of Common Prayer tucked under his left arm, his right hand pointing toward parishioners. “It requires the courage to acknowledge that you want to change, to change your direction.”

Was he preaching to the president in the weeks before Bush announced the changes in his Iraq policy?

No, Leon said firmly in a recent interview. “I never preach to the president. I preach to the congregation.”

“My rule of thumb has been that he gets what everybody else gets and hope that some of it speaks to him.”

When Bush attends, he sits nine rows back at St. John’s, his church of choice and by tradition the “Church of the Presidents,” just across Lafayette Square from the White House.

He listens to a priest who made an improbable journey to its pulpit.

Born in Guantanamo, Cuba, Leon came to the United States at 11, alone and without his parents as one of the “Pedro Pan” flights bearing children fleeing the island nation. He had a toothbrush, a few pieces of clothing and $3 when he landed in Miami, and he spent the next years in foster care. His mother arrived when he was a teenager, but he never saw his father again.

Bush, like many of his predecessors, sits in pew No. 54, which is marked by small brass plaque reading “The Presidents’ Pew.” The choice was President Madison’s.

Every president since has attended at least occasional services at the pale yellow church.

“There would be a temptation in a church like that to play ‘civil religion,’ in other words to be a chaplain to the establishment,” said the Rev. Kevin Bean, who worked with Leon at Trinity Church in Wilmington, Del. “But that’s not Luis’ style.”

“He’s political, but he’s not partisan,” Bean said of Leon’s sermons. “He’s civil, but he’s not soft. He has part of the fiery Latino in him, which is a good thing.”

Bush was raised Presbyterian, became an Episcopalian and now is a United Methodist. The president prefers an early service, a little more than a half hour, no music.

When he and the first lady attend services together, they greet people in line for Communion and shake hands with congregants, but otherwise draw little attention.

The Episcopal Church’s views differ from those of Bush on some controversial issues. For example, the church opposes a constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex marriages and supports abortion rights.

Yet, Leon and Bush get along well.

In 2003, the Bushes threw him a dinner party at the White House to celebrate his 25 years as a priest, said Thais Villanueva, Leon’s cousin who was among family members and friends attending the event.

“The president was pretty casual with Luis,” Villanueva said.

Bush chose Leon to deliver the prayer at his second presidential inauguration in 2005. The two frequently chat after Sunday services.

Leon’s sermons are written before he finds out whether the president is attending morning service. “I don’t change anything because the president’s coming,” he said. Nor does he refrain from speaking about topics that might conflict with Bush’s views.

“He knows that I’ve traveled to Cuba. That’s not something that the administration favors,” he said.

While he doesn’t tailor his sermons, he’s certainly aware of the face in the crowd. He finds preaching to the president daunting.

“You never get used to it,” Leon told The Associated Press in May 2002. “You get very nervous, because the person sitting in the pew carries such responsibilities, but ultimately I don’t ever change what I’m going to say.”

Leon, 57, started his ministry at St. John’s in 1994. As the church’s first Hispanic leader, he established a Spanish language service. He was a rector at churches in Paterson, N.J., and Wilmington before coming to St. John’s.

A wine enthusiast, Leon once co-wrote a column on wine for The (Baltimore) Evening Sun. He picked up the interest after drinking a 1970 Bordeaux with a member of his church in Charlotte, N.C., in 1977.

“The moment I tasted it, I said, ‘This is not what I’ve been drinking. What is this stuff?”‘ he recalled.

Although he doesn’t shy away from issues in his sermons, Leon tries to avoid making people the target of criticism.

“My intention is never to scold anybody during a sermon,” he said. “So you have to invite people to consider something. And that’s what I try to do.”

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