Priest Came Through Miami From Cuba To Earn A Place At Obama's Second Inaugural

Jan 21, 2013

President Obama and his inaugural guests will receive their blessing from a Cuba-born minister who came to Miami as a child and now pastors a church just blocks from the White House.

The Rev. Luis León, an Episcopal priest, is the rector at St. John's Church where every president since James Madison has attended services at one time or another. His relationship with the White House is well-established: In 2005, he became the first Hispanic clergyman to deliver an inaugural benediction when President George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term.

SUNDAY AT ST. JOHNS: The Rev. Luis León greets the President and Mrs. Obama at the door of his church near the White House. Leon will give the inaugural benediction when the president is sworn in for his second term.
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León arrived in Miami as a child of 11 in Operation Pedro Pan, the CIA-run project that spirited 14,000 children out of Cuba ahead of rumors that the new Castro regime would be taking them from the families to raise as dedicated communists. That connection makes León big news in South Florida, but another constituency is just as delighted -- gay people.

The tone is correct.

León has established a tone of diversity and inclusiveness at St. Johns that not only appeals to gays and lesbians but resonates with themes and imagery that the Obama Administration uses and many credit for the president's second term. León was the president's second choice for the inaugural benediction. His first choice, the Rev. Louise Giglio of Atlanta, bowed out after disclosures that he had delivered an anti-gay sermon in the 1990s.

León gave an interview to the Miami Herald:

“It’s an honor to be a part of such a milestone in American history, as all inaugurations are. And it’s a special honor because as an immigrant, this is the only country where something like this could happen to me,” León, 63, told The Miami Herald in a telephone interview on Wednesday from his church.

"I feel that in some way I am representing the U.S. Hispanic community. And we’re an important part of this country," said León, who is married to his wife, Lu, and has two grown daughters.

León went to college at the University of the South in Tennessee and earned a Masters in Divinity at Virginia Theological Seminary in 1977. After serving at churches in Delaware and New Jersey, he was appointed rector of St. Johns in 1995. And, as former Herald religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem wrote in the Huffington Post, he put his stamp on the "church of the presidents":

León's own parish is known for welcoming openly gay members. The church, which has openly gay, non-celibate priests and has had a gay bishop, announced this summer that it would bless same-sex partnerships and ordain transgender priests. This month, the Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal church, announced that it would also begin same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Obama and his family have attended St. John's many times during his first term. Former President George W. Bush, attended the church regularly as well.

Changing the church.

León gave his first inaugural benediction in the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  Taking his themes from the Book of Common Prayer, he asked that President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney "lead us to exercise our privileges and responsibilities as citizens and residents of this country that we may all work together to eliminate poverty and prejudice so that peace may prevail with righteousness and justice with order.”

León isn’t the only Cuban-American with a gay following who will have duties during President Obama's second inaugural. Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, who studied at Florida International University,  will be the first Hispanic and the first gay person to provide the official inaugural poem during the ceremony.