The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, who ministers the Episcopal parish at St. John’s Church near the White House, became the choice to deliver the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration after Atlanta pastor the Rev. Louie Giglio bowed out because of his anti-gay sermons.
Leon, a Cuban-American, is known for welcoming gay parishioners at his church, where the Obamas have worshiped many times.
Leon's sermon on Easter Sunday 2013 drew criticism from conservatives who charged he was politicizing religion. The pastor told his congregation it is "crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back -- for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for immigrants to be back on their side of the border."
Early Life in Guantanamo, Cuba:
Luis Leon came to the United States from his birthplace of Guantanamo, Cuba, in 1961 when he was 11 years old, during Operation Peter Pan, the U.S. initiative to remove Cuban families from Fidel Castro’s communist rule. Many Cuban families sent their children to the United States, believing they would be safer there.
Leon’s mother eventually joined him in the United States, and they settled in Miami. A naturalized citizen, Leon benefited from U.S. policy that essentially treats Cuban immigrants as political refugees and gives them legal status when they reach U.S. soil.
Leon attended the University of the South and graduated in 1971. He went on to receive a master’s in divinity degree from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1977, and in 1999 he received an honorary doctorate degree in divinity from the University of the South. He is a member of the board of regents at the University of the South and was a founding member of the Washington Interfaith Network and the Wilmington, Del., Interfaith Network.
The Spiritual Road to Washington, D.C.:
Leon served as rector of Trinity Church in Wilmington and St. Paul's Church in Paterson, N.J. St. Paul's, an inner-city parish, grew during his tenure from a few dozen parishioners to several hundred. In 1985, St. Paul's was named "Church of the Year" by the New Jersey Council of Churches. In 1986, Leon received the Bishop’s Outstanding Service Award in recognition of the "extraordinary contributions made to the life, quality, and the spirit of the church” in Paterson.
In 1995, Leon became pastor of St. John’s, which has had a connection with every U.S. president since its founding in 1815. Pew 54 is reserved for presidents whenever they choose to worship, and President Obama has sat there frequently.
Former President George W. Bush, also attended the church regularly. Leon gave the invocation at Bush's 2005 inaugural. St. John’s is often called the "church of the presidents" and its rector “the pastor of the presidents.” The church has had every president since James Madison attend services, but not all of them have been members.
Luis is married to Lu Stanton León. They have two children, Emilia and Sofia. Lu is a professional writer, editor and consultant.
The Benediction at Obama's Inauguration:
Leon said he wanted to give the country a spiritual lift when he spoke at Obama’s inauguration. “I think when we're asking a blessing for this country,” he said, “I think we're asking God to lift us up, to lift up what's good in us. To remind us of what's good in us and remind us to do what's proper, what's the good, the right thing for the country."
Here are some excerpts from the benediction:
Gracious and eternal God, as we conclude the second inauguration of President Obama, we ask for your blessings as we seek to become, in the words of Martin Luther King, citizens of a beloved community, loving you and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We pray that you will bless us with your continued presence because without it, hatred and arrogance will infect our hearts. But with your blessing we know that we can break down the walls that separate us. We pray for your blessing today because without it, distrust, prejudice and rancor will rule our hearts. But with the blessing of your presence, we know that we can renew the ties of mutual regard which can best form our civic life.
We pray for your blessing because without it suspicion, despair, and fear of those different from us will be our rule of life. But with your blessing, we can see each other created in your image, a unit of God's grace, unprecedented, irrepeatable (sic) and irreplaceable.
We pray for your blessing because without it, we will see only what the eye can see. But with the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor.
We pray for your blessing because without it, we will only see scarcity in the midst of abundance. But with your blessing we will recognize the abundance of the gifts of this good land with which you have endowed this nation.
We pray that the president, vice president and all in political authority will remember the words of the prophet Micah, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and always walk humbly with God?"
Señor Presidente, señor Vicepresidente, que Dios bendiga todos sus días. Todo esto lo ruego, en el más santo nombre, Amén.
Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, may God bless you all your days. All this we pray, in your most holy name, amen.