WASHINGTON — I’m sure I was the only Mennonite there.
It was a cool, clear morning, with stars visible even through the urban twilight, as I cruised the six-mile bicycle ride from northeast Washington to downtown at 5 a.m. Sept. 23. I had been to 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue dozens of times before, but this time felt different. My adrenaline was pumping. The combination of streetlights and flashlights created a mixture of illumination and shadow. Cutting through the darkness, bodies were moving, directions were being given, expectations were high.
When I covered President Obama as a senior at Goshen (Ind.) College during his visit in 2009 to Elkhart County, his first speech outside of Washington as president, I learned how political reporting can be memorable, and an honor, yet not especially dignifying. I was reminded of this recently while at the White House.
I.D., please, the Secret Service officer said. I showed it to him. He motioned for me to pass. It was really happening.
Only the previous morning had I received the official word. And it was just a word: Confirmed. The White House had granted me credentials to join the press corps for the Arrival Ceremony of His Holiness Pope Francis on the South Lawn. I had successfully channeled the vast influence of Mennonite World Review and gotten permission to cover the pope.
We reporters stood in a second security line for over an hour — except those holding a White House “hard pass” who were expedited. One man, who had covered Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2008, said the day’s security was comparable to a presidential inauguration. After having our equipment sniffed by the K-9 unit, putting our items and bodies through airport-like scanners, and showing I.D. again, we were given red press pass necklaces. A woman from The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pa., newspaper near my hometown, was three people in front of me. Also around me were a reporter from Pittsburgh, two photographers from Newsweek, a trio from Argentina and a team from the Holy See Press Office.
Upon admission, I entered the White House Briefing Room. I felt privileged, and out of place. “I’m sure I’m the only Mennonite here,” I thought. I thought of the countless towering figures who have been in that room, especially Helen Thomas, the pioneering female reporter who covered 11 U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. The room is surprisingly small, cramped and uninviting. The coffee tray was dry, and the main bathroom, which had quite a line, was out of toilet paper and paper towels.
After waiting for an hour and a half, the Secret Service shepherded us onto the South Lawn to join the 11,000 ticketed guests. My heart was thumping, as were the fife and drum.
“Am I the only Mennonite here?” I thought. I squeezed myself between the Holy See press team and NBC’s Today show broadcast. Hosts Matt Lauer and Maria Shriver and conservative Catholic mogul George Weigel sat within arm’s length, and NBC reporter Chuck Todd stood behind me all morning. I wanted to say hello but thought it would only further evidence my outsider status.
At one point Lauer whispered to the producer next to me that he couldn’t hear Shriver or Weigel in his earpiece. Later, he mentioned that although they had a copy of Pope Francis’ speech, it was embargoed, and so all he could say was that the pope would touch on various political issues relevant in the U.S. today. That set off a Holy See journalist, who turned to me, quite upset, and asserted that this was not just unprofessional but disrespectful. I shrugged.
Only slightly late, the pope and president appeared together. People strained their necks to see and waved U.S. and Vatican flags, among others. I heard more cheers of “Papa” than “Obama.” As their national anthems played, they stood together: the pope cloaked in white, slightly hunched, staring down toward his feet; the president suited in black, standing straight, gazing into the distance. The president spoke in his staccato, soaring oratory, followed by the pope in his slightly slurred, soft-spoken beauty.
At the end of the pope’s speech, as the crowd clapped and cameras captured only the fourth pope to meet with a U.S. president during a visit to the United States, one man’s voice rose above the cheers: “We love you, Pope Francis!” he shouted. Everyone went wild. Not your typical ending to a speech in this town.
Sheldon C. Good is a former MWR assistant editor and web editor. He currently lives and works in Washington.