FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Amazing Grace — a rabbi’s view of the inaugural prayer service

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

By Burton L. Visotzky

On Wednesday, I went to church. It seemed right that on the morning after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States I should pray for his and our success in the years ahead. We are a nation in crisis, depleted in so many ways by the last eight years. On the Tuesday of the inauguration, I stood with a million other Americans on the Mall in Washington, watching and cheering the transfer of power. The air was frigid, but filled with hope. We stood just behind the Capitol reflecting pool – far from the rostrum, but embedded in the great, diverse mass of people who make up America. Next to us were folks from Augusta, Georgia, who drawled their discomfort when George Bush was booed. On our other side were Washingtonians – African-Americans who proudly declared that on this day we were not black or white, but all of us were silver (the color of our tickets to the event). (Photo: National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)

Truth be told, the inaugural was better viewed in front of a television. But for the experience of being an American on this auspicious day, the Mall was the best place in the whole world. There is something extraordinary about standing among a million others, staring up at the jumbotron, striving to catch the words our new president was speaking. Sharing our food, our stories, ducking down so someone behind us could snap a photo, making sure that kids were in the sight-lines of their parents, breathing free; we huddled, massed against the cold, embodying the passions that Emma Lazarus’ poem emblazons on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

On Wednesday morning, waking before the dawn, again in bitter cold, we headed to church to pray for our republic. We were invited to the magnificent Washington National Cathedral for the interfaith National Prayer Service, a long tradition, since the days of President George Washington. There among the crowd I spotted many familiar Jewish faces (not a long tradition). There were Muslims and Hindus, and, of course, an abundance of Christian clergy.

I had the privilege of shaking hands with Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. (the National Cathedral is Episcopal). I greeted Rev. Joseph Lowery, who had delivered the stirring closing benediction at the inaugural. The 3,000 proud Americans in the congregation included the incoming cabinet, as well as senators and members of Congress among the pews. From my seat I watched former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton work the room. I saw Vice-President and Dr. Biden enter the cathedral, mere feet from where I was seated. They were immediately followed by President and Mrs. Obama. Tall, even regal, they embodied the very grace that we all prayed God may grant them.

Canadians fill YouTube with “Amazing Grace” videos

If “Amazing Grace” is not already the most widely sung hymn in Christianity — and cyberlists, for what they’re worth, say it is — it should be by the time the Amazing Grace Project is finished. The Anglican Church of Canada invited all its congregations to sing John Newton‘s iconic hymn last Sunday and upload a video of their efforts to the church’s national office. The plan is to edit them into “one big, amazing “Amazing Grace” video and put it up on the web for all to enjoy by Christmas,” as the project website explains.

The uploads are piling up on YouTube (here’s the playlist) and it seems some congregations in U.S. states close to the Canadian border have joined in. There are a few entries from South Africa and a clip of bishops at the Lambeth Conference (see video above) enjoying the opportunity to sing from the same songsheet. If you want to be part of the final product, upload your video here by Dec. 1.

I first realised how widely known “Amazing Grace” was in 1999, at the end of the Yugoslav wars, when I was reporting from the Kosovo town of Prizren. The Serbian army had just left the town and NATO forces controlled the province. My Muslim interpreter and I happened to pass a Catholic Church one day and we went in for a look. To my surprise, a Mass was being said and the congregation was belting out a familiar tune. When I finally realised it was “Amazing Grace” in Albanian translation, I sang along softly in English. On leaving, the interpreter asked me “How do you know an Albanian hymn?”