WASHINGTON - The invocation is an inauguration ritual, but tomorrow, the man uttering the prayer for the president will be anything but the conventional choice.
The Rev. Luis Leon's flock describes him as a liberal thinker who preaches inclusiveness in his sermons, furthers social justice in his work and welcomes same-sex couples in his congregation. To worshipers at St. John's Episcopal Church, the Lafayette Square landmark overlooking the White House, Leon is also a trusted friend of the congregant in pew 54.
That would be George W. Bush.
Over the past four years, the president has forged a bond with Leon - chatting with him after his Sunday service at St. John's, inviting him to the White House for dinner and, most recently, asking the priest to deliver the prayer just before his swearing-in.
Leon quickly accepted the honor when Bush asked before a recent Sunday service.
"I may try to project that I'm cool, ... but I think by Wednesday it'll finally hit," Leon said in an interview Sunday. "I'll be about as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs."
The White House Historical Association says the Cuban immigrant will be the first Latino ever to deliver the inaugural prayer. Tomorrow, relatives in this country will join the global audience watching him on television. And the thousands expected to gather on the National Mall will include not just Leon's wife and two teenage daughters, but the foster mother who cared for him when he arrived in Miami on his own as an 11-year-old more than 40 years ago.
The prayer will last only about two minutes, but those minutes are closely watched. At Bush's first inauguration, in 2001, evangelical leader Franklin Graham evoked Jesus Christ in his prayer, causing some critics to accuse him of ignoring the country's religious diversity.
While the Rev. Billy Graham has delivered the invocation at the inaugurations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton - his son filled in four years ago when the elder Graham fell ill - this year brings a switch. Leon's friends do not expect him to be remade in the evangelical image. They note that in the Leon family Christmas card, the priest's wife assured their friends that her husband's moment in the Republican spotlight would not alter his beliefs.
Leon, a lanky 55-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and a crackly voice, says that though the war in Iraq is always on his mind, tomorrow offers a moment to celebrate as a nation.
"It's a prayer of thanksgiving and a sense of celebration of the American character," Leon said. "You also have to talk a little bit about how you can't just rest on your laurels. ... You also have to express some sense of hope of where you want to go."
The long road
It's been a long voyage to the inaugural platform from one of the so-called Peter Pan flights from Cuba that brought children to the United States without their parents. Leon took that solo trip in 1961.
After a stint in a Miami orphanage, the Guantanamo native practiced English in his foster home by watching episodes of the TV Western Bonanza. His father, a lawyer, had a weak heart and was thought too ill to endure the loss of both children at once, so Leon and his elder sister left Cuba separately and lived apart. Though Leon's mother made it to the United States when Leon was a teen, his father died in Cuba, never having seen his son again.
As a student, Leon devoured religious and philosophical texts - it was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that hooked him - and learned Greek and Hebrew with enthusiasm.
Beyond the church, Leon is vocal in his love for submarine movies and the Baltimore Orioles. (He lived in Baltimore for a brief stint in the early 1980s, when his wife, Lu Stanton Leon, was a reporter for The Evening Sun.) A wine enthusiast who once co-wrote a wine column for The Sun, Leon now has a 400-bottle cellar in his northwest Washington home. His tastes are legend here: He once donated two bottles of 1978 Chateau de Beaucastel for use as communion wine (he told congregants not to come back for seconds; each bottle cost more than $150).
Like Bush, Leon is an athlete. Last week, when a federal judge denied a lawsuit by an atheist who wanted to ban the invocation on the grounds that it forced religious observance on the public, Leon was enjoying a long-scheduled three days at a Florida tennis camp with his wife.
The priest is spirited in his exchanges with Bush, whom he calls direct and funny, with a "magic that politicians have" to make a listener feel like the only one in the room.
But Leon also notes that the bond with Bush is the apolitical kind.
"No, no, I don't try to change anybody's mind," Leon said, adding that he never gets into political arguments with his congregation, though he never bites his tongue, either. "I say to people what I have to say, and then they have to determine what they're going to do with it."
A powerful forum
Leon has criticized those who would use religion to divide. After Sept. 11, Franklin Graham called Islam "a very evil and very wicked religion." But Leon used his church to criticize those who took "God Bless America" signs, scratched out "God" and wrote "Jesus."
"I was so disappointed that was the reaction of some members of the Christian community," he said. "We can certainly be a lot broader than that in our inclusiveness."
Leon's friendship with Bush has offered him, at times, a powerful forum. In 2003, after returning from an AIDS mission in South Africa, he recalls Bush inviting him to dinner at the White House. Leon expected to be just one of hundreds, but he arrived to find himself dining with the president and only about a dozen others, including United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
"I'd been the most recent guy to travel to South Africa, so I just jumped into the conversation and talked about all that I'd seen," he recalled. "It was a good time to be able to speak about what I thought was so important. We needed to be paying attention to that."
Leon takes no credit, but not long after, Bush urged Congress in his State of the Union address to commit $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
A subtle lobbying effort, perhaps, but Leon was anything but coy after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said on a radio show that "this multicultural crap" shouldn't be taught in schools.
"When Governor Ehrlich said multiculturalism was crap, [Leon] called him out by name," says Peter Mayer, a fellow St. John's priest. "It was one of the times he was the boldest."
An outsider no more
Last Sunday, the multicultural mix at St. John's was clearly in sight. While Latino congregants prepared readings and music for a Spanish-language service, establishment Washington types filtered out from the just-concluded 11 o'clock service. One chatted about his duck-hunting trip; another said her goodbyes as she prepared for a sojourn to Paris.
Leon arrived at St. John's in 1994, becoming its first Latino rector and establishing its first Hispanic ministry. Before D.C., Leon led Trinity Church in Wilmington, Del., and St. Paul's Church in Paterson, N.J., where he ignored reluctant local officials and found state money to place a 40-bed homeless shelter in the parish hall. In Paterson, he also organized Head Start classes and food pantries for immigrants from the 18 countries in his flock.
The priest is sensitive to the outsider's story. He remembers being kept out of an advanced math class because the principal assumed he couldn't do the work. He remembers walking the aisles of the supermarket, stunned by the abundance (all those sticks of butter, a rare treat in Cuba). He remembers not understanding that "How come?" meant "Why?"
Now he leads a church established in 1815 where every president has worshiped since James Madison. He can see the White House from the office windows. He can muse about nights like the one at the White House in 2003, when the Bushes threw him a party to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and his Cuban-born relatives came, too.
"It sounds corny, but you got this sense of being part of 'We the People,'" he said. "It's a sense of inclusiveness that I don't think would happen many other places in this world."
When he delivers his prayer tomorrow, Leon himself will be testament to that.
The Rev. Luis Leon
Born: Oct. 25, 1949, Guantanamo, Cuba
Family: Married in 1981 to Lu Stanton Leon, a freelance writer and public relations consultant; Daughters: Sofia (18) and Emilia (15).
Education: Doctor of Divinity, honorary, University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn., 1999; Master of Divinity, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Va., 1977; Bachelor of Arts, University of the South, 1971
Ministries: Rector, St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., 1994-present; rector, Trinity Parish, Wilmington, Del., 1988-1994; rector, St. Paul's Church, Paterson, N.J., 1982-1988; Director of Refugee Resettlement; Diocese of Maryland, Baltimore, 1980-1982