George’s head and Abe’s seat
a shot of DC I took from an airplane window in 2001
Tonight I played at Abraham Lincoln’s church. No kidding. Yes, that Abraham Lincoln. John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson went there, too, and Dr. King preached there a bit more recently. I can’t help but have those images run together in my mind and imagine how Abraham Lincoln would have enjoyed listening to a sermon from Dr. King at his own church, New York Avenue Presbyterian.
I was in town to play a show for the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Initiative. The lineup for the night included some long-haired folksinger from North Carolina, Cobalt Season, an acoustic group from California with great lyrics and very cool music, and Native Deen, a Muslim hip-hop trio from the DC area. Both bands were great. Native Deen invited me up to play djembe on their song Small Deeds, which was one of my favorites of theirs even before I got to play drum on it.
I got there early enough in the day to get set up and still have time to look around. The sanctuary is beautiful, with a balcony and gorgeous stained glass. It has been significantly remodeled since Lincoln’s day, but they kept his pew when they replaced all the others. I sat down in it, of course, just to sit where Lincoln sat.
After the show folks helped me schlep gear to the car but I couldn’t find my cell phone, so I spent another twenty minutes or so unpacking everything on the curb again and going through bags. I went in and looked around again, and even went back to the sanctuary and checked Lincoln’s pew (Abe would have been so embarrassed if my cell phone rang in his pew during the sermon). Then I went back outside and dug around the car a bit more, since I wanted to call Deanna and say goodnight.
I was just about to give up when a police officer on a bicycle rode up and asked me to step back onto the sidewalk. I looked up to see the presidential motorcade coming down the street: First a long line of motorcycle police (all with empty sidecars for some reason…?), then secret service SUVs and cars, then the long black limo. The side windows were tinted opaque, of course, but I was surprised to find that I could see through the back window and look at the back of the president’s head, about twenty feet away from me, as he rode away, followed by another wave of various vehicles carrying grim-faced men with uniforms and guns.
It’s a little surreal to have been in DC for all of about eight hours and to have been twenty feet away from the president. To be honest, I’ll happy to see the back of him metaphorically as well, but it did stir some sense of his humanity for me– just to look at the back of his head– as he drove by, sitting in a car, and I was glad for that.
Sitting in Lincoln’s pew was like that, too. Nothing heady about it, just a hard wooden church pew. And somehow that made Abe a little more human, too. Just a guy with a really hard job. He sat right here on this really hard pew.
I had spent the evening making some new friends, and I had to admit, sadly, that I don’t have any close friends who are Muslim at this point in my life. It’s so much easier to categorize any group of people we call “them” when we don’t actually know anyone who belongs to that group, and reintroducing humanity into our conversation through direct personal interaction and exploration is always a good idea, or so it seems to me.
Folks on the political left, where I mostly live, tend to spend a lot of time talking about inclusion and treating people with dignity. Where that often stops for us, though, is in talking about the folks on the right. Sure, I can completely appreciate and connect with my new Muslim friends, honoring who and where they are and what they believe in spite of the fact that some of my beliefs are significantly different. Can I do the same with George? Maybe that’s my homework.