Empowerment Temple members make most of botched inauguration plans

Prince Brooks (left), Sylvia Marion Carley and others cheer in a meeting room at the JW Marriott in Washington as Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president.
Prince Brooks (left), Sylvia Marion Carley and others cheer in a meeting room at the JW Marriott in Washington as Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president. (Baltimore Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri)
Mitzi McCain's huge hopes for Inauguration Day included a grand gospel brunch at a Washington hotel in the heart of Pennsylvania Avenue's pomp and pageantry.

Jumbo television screens on three spacious levels would broadcast President Barack Obama's history-making oath. And the hotel balcony's giant floor-to-ceiling windows would make the perfect place to gaze at the first couple striding down the inaugural parade route.

Instead, McCain found herself in a meeting room in the bowels of the JW Marriott, about to bear witness to a defining moment in American history as she might in her Pikesville home - on a small, run-of-the-mill TV.

"It's disappointing," she said, flatly. "You only get a first time, the first time. So honestly, the experience is just ruined."

But just then, the TV flashed an image of Obama strolling onto the Capitol steps, and McCain's face transformed.

Around her, the room full of 150 guests erupted into cheers and McCain stood to her feet, beaming.

"At the end of the day - that is what it's all about," she said, pointing to her new president. "My ancestors' work, sweat and tears are paying off. Forget what I said. I don't care where I'm sitting. I'm here."

Baltimore megachurch Empowerment Temple sponsored the inauguration viewing party, through a partnership with Silver Spring promotion company Kingdom Ventures. Guests said that for $150 a ticket, they were promised first-rate views on a seventh-floor terrace and a large gathering place to share with other parishioners.

But after waiting two hours in a security line to get into the hotel, most of the estimated 500 ticket holders were crammed into small meeting rooms on the hotel's lower level. Staff with Kingdom Ventures told them that another party was taking place on the balcony and that their tickets did not provide access. On the balcony level, guests of another party enjoyed stunning views of the parade route. They ate brunch, swayed to gospel tunes and danced the Electric Slide.

It's not clear what went wrong. Kingdom Ventures said Empowerment Temple might have oversold and over-promised the event. Empowerment Temple's the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant told guests they were not able to get to balconies because of Secret Service activity.

But by midmorning, guests' disappointment was replaced by excitement. The meeting rooms became electric, transformed into part-house party, part-worship service. Men and women decked out in a glittering array of Obama T-shirts, hats, scarves and buttons booed outgoing President George W. Bush, shouted "Amens" and "Hallelujahs" to the Rev. Rick Warren's sermon, and swayed with tears in their eyes for Aretha Franklin's rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

"Go ahead, Michelle, flawless as ever!" said Sally Fletcher, 36, of Baltimore, admiring the first lady's embroidered ensemble. "God, I love her."

The room stood at attention when Obama took the oath. This group of mostly African-Americans, some old enough to have endured the indignities of segregation, pounded the table in appreciation when Obama spoke plainly about the triumph of becoming the first African-American president: "... a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

"I feel like everything I have wanted to do for the last five years, I want to do right now," said McCain. "That's how inspired he makes me feel."

For the MacDonald family from Catonsville, a drab meeting room and bland breakfast couldn't stop them from relishing the moment. Dana MacDonald and his wife, Neisha, bundled up their sons Myles, 7, and Christian, 4, and arrived in Washington by Metro at 8 a.m.

"This isn't about breakfast or some hotel," Dana said. "It's about me and my family experiencing history."

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