Sunday, February 18, 2018

Feb. 18, 2018, column:
Standing in the cold was worth it to hear prayer at Mount Vernon
By Mike Haynes
            For someone who has trudged through snowy streets in blizzard conditions to help reenact the Boston Tea Party, I suppose it wasn’t that difficult to spend less than an hour in 32-degree weather – wind chill 16 degrees – to honor George Washington.
A Mount Vernon staff member, left, supervises a ceremony
Jan. 6 at the tomb of George and Martha Washington
in Virginia as two volunteers prepare to
move a wreath into the tomb.
(Photo by Mike Haynes)
            In December 2003, my wife, Kathy, and I were in Boston for a Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert. It so happens that on Dec. 16 each year, people gather at the Old South Meeting House, then march several blocks to Boston Harbor, where folks in 18th century costumes throw fake tea boxes off a small ship into the water.
            Knowing it probably would be our only chance to participate in defying British taxation, we walked the whole way to the harbor with snow blowing into our faces. Then we called a taxi as fast as we could.
            Fast-forward 14-plus years, and we found ourselves last month at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate outside Washington, D.C. No blizzard this time, but it was freezing as we waited with six other hardy tourists for the daily wreath-laying at Washington’s tomb.
            Considering the weather and the small crowd, the woman in charge of the ceremony asked whether we’d like to speed things up by not unfurling the American flag. A young woman said no, we should include the flag, so our group saw the entire event – although in the frigid air, there was no dillydallying.
            The short ceremony was impressive for a couple of reasons.
            One was the fact that anyone would brave the cold just to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, hear a prayer read aloud and to place a wreath in front of the two white, stone monuments containing the remains of George and Martha Washington.
            A young Asian man in the group volunteered to help place the wreath. He saw me taking photos and afterward asked if I would email some to him. He said the ceremony was so meaningful to him that he wanted to remember it. Putting his address into my phone, I found out that he worked at the University of Maryland, but he said he was leaving soon to return to China. He showed more reverence for the first president than I think many Americans would.
A man who was identified as a U.S. military
veteran reads George Washington's prayer
for America at a wreath-laying ceremony
Jan. 6 at the Washington tomb at Mount
Vernon, Virginia. (Photo by Mike Haynes) 
            Another aspect of the event that struck me was the natural inclusion of religion at the tomb and in the ceremony. A well-worn stone on the wall of the crypt is engraved with John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
            Washington clearly was a believer, more so than some of the other founders of the nation. He was open in welcoming various Christian denominations and minority religions and opposed an official state church like most of Europe had experienced for centuries, but in his 1796 farewell address upon leaving the presidency, he left no doubt that religion should play an important role in public life:
            “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
            At the ceremony last month, another young man who said he was a U.S. military veteran stepped forward to read Washington’s prayer for America, which the retiring general included in letters to the 13 state governors in 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War.
            Wearing gloves and a canvas jacket, the young veteran solemnly read the first commander-in-chief’s prayer from a clipboard. With Washington’s birthday coming up Feb. 22 and considering the discord in the nation today, I believe it’s fitting to repeat all of it:
            “I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have the United States in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech thee, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

            Kathy and I take pride in our Boston Tea Party march through a blizzard, but we also are grateful that we didn’t let the cold keep us from hearing that prayer in front of the tomb of a statesman.