Never mind the White House: A Pagan Priestess’s multi-faith journey through Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row

Published: October 1st 2010
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Now that I am in Washington D.C., I am enjoying it. It’s a beautiful city with grand architecture, wide streets, parks and lots of free museums. Here, I am staying in a B&B just off the National Cathedral. Actually, it’s not really a B&B but a converted porch in a private house. While researching where I’d like to stay in D.C., I came across this marvellous website: It’s a website through which you can find people who hire out rooms in their houses and apartments, meaning that you stay with locals of the city, rather than in an anonymous hotel.

Airbnb goes under the slogan ‘Travel like a human’ and this just about sums it up for me. And you can find some fascinating people on this site: I am intent on staying with an Arabic musician but unfortunately his place is already booked out. So I find Teresa Gruber, a lovely lady, who lives near said Cathedral in a detached house with her husband Reid and son Ian. Because all of her other rooms are full, she offers me the ‘converted porch’, otherwise known as the ‘ping pong room’. Not quite knowing what that means, I accept, and
get a lovely surprise when I arrive there after my long Amtrak train trip (see last my blog - )

The converted porch is what we’d call a conservatory in England, with windows all the way around and trees and shrubs in front of them. Inside the room is a queen-sized Air Bed, which is actually very comfortable. When I lie in it, it feels like I am in a tree house, especially because curious squirrels climb around in the branches all the time. And as it’s a little removed from the main house, its wonderfully quiet. I congratulate myself for having made a good choice.

Apart from Teresa, I know nobody in Washington D.C., and to be honest, I’m a bit travelled out. So I take it slow. I visit the National Zoo (which is a park into which you can just walk for free) and look at elephants, crocodiles and zebras; I delight at the Wholefoods Market in the neighbourhood (how awesome can a supermarket be??), and take a bus to nearby Georgetown (full of charming old buildings and gardens) - or let’s say I try to go there, but miss my stop and don’t realize
Jesus - I absolutely love this paintingJesus - I absolutely love this paintingJesus - I absolutely love this painting

It's in the National Cathedral in the St Joseph of Arimathea chapel
it until I am at the end of the bus line!

Talking about buses. I love the bus drivers here. They just will not let me pay my fare. The first one gives me a free ride to the next stop. The second one gives me $1 discount because I haven’t got the right change. And the Metro guy, obviously in deep sympathy about my struggles with the ticket machine, calls me over and gives me a free ticket. Thanks guys, you made my day! When I get lost again in the evening and hail a taxi in despair, this kind old man gives me invaluable advice on how to be streetwise in D.C. ‘Never pay a caaab with a twenny dollar bill!’ he advises me sternly.

‘Sorry, I’ve only got twenty’, I confess meekly. He sighs and shakes his head with utter dismay, then makes me run to a liquor store to get change.

‘Miss! Never leave anything in a cab ever again!’ he reprimands, when I come back with the change - I’d left a bag in his taxi. ‘And when you get out, Miss, make sure you got your key already in your hand, don’t look for it in your bag outside your door! You don’t want to get attacked!’

‘Thanks for the advice’ I say.

‘Please take it!’ he implores me.

I’ve only got two full days in the US capital, so I figure that I need to see the White House at least (I later wonder why- am I really that interested?). But I never make it there. I get distracted by the different Places of Worship in my ‘hood. It starts with the National Cathedral. I’m not a big fan of churches, really, but somehow I feel inspired to visit this majestic structure. As I walk in at around mid-day, the Holy Mass is on and we hear a female priest (or priestess - but Christians apparently don’t like to use that word) through the loudspeakers.

I like what she says - she talks about tolerance and how Christians ought not to convert anybody else, but respect all religions - so I take a seat and listen for a while. She seems very open-minded and compassionate, so I listen to her entire sermon from a bench outside the actual enclosure in the centre of the Cathedral where
The Cathedral's chill-out spaceThe Cathedral's chill-out spaceThe Cathedral's chill-out space

Not so different from an ashram!
the service takes place. She talks about a homeless man who wanted to come to her Church. ‘I reached out to him and placed my hand on his heart’, she says, ‘and the man flinched. It was then I realized that this man had not been touched for many years.’ This resonated with me: I once talked to a lonely, elderly man in Edinburgh and somehow felt inspired to give him a hug when I left. He was so moved by this gesture that also I realized that he hadn’t had close human contact for ages. Sometimes the smallest things that we take for granted, like a hug, can mean so much to another person.

And then the weirdest thing happens. The priest(ess) says ‘To all of you out there in the aisle, feel free to join this service now as we prepare to receive the Holy Eucharist.’ The Holy Eucharist - blimey! I was born and raised a Catholic, but I haven’t been to church and taken the communion since I was fourteen or thereabouts. I mean, I’m a Pagan Priestess-cum-Yogini, right? But before I know what gets into me, I get up and join the small gathering
Churches are truly becoming progressive.Churches are truly becoming progressive.Churches are truly becoming progressive.

Washington D.C.'s National Cathedral
of faithful Christians for the Holy Communion. It just feels right somehow.

Though I inwardly cringe when the priest(ess) talks only about ‘Father, Son & Holy Spirit’ in relation to creation, I silently add ‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’ to it and all is well. When they pray to the ‘Lord’, I say ‘God and Goddess’ instead. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s all One anyway. Is God male, female, androgynous.... can we even confine the Divine into such mundane terms? I think not. Likewise with religion. I may have a preference for Paganism and Hinduism, but I’m all too aware that all these things are concepts, coloured filters that help us to understand what we can’t really understand. So from that point of view, I can easily go and worship in a Christian Church, a mosque or a Hindu temple. And inspired by the unexpected start to my day, I do just that a little later.

I have to say though that Churches seem to become more tolerant. Especially this one. When I walk into the Cathedral shop, they are playing kirtan (kirtan!) over the speakers. For those not in the know, kirtan are devotional Hindu chants, and these particular ones are in honour of Krishna and Devi (the Divine Feminine). They are selling ‘Eat Pray Love’ in the shop, hippy clothes and incense. I mean: hey! That’s a far cry from the stuffy Catholic Church I grew up with. And in the Cathedral’s ‘chill out space’, a monthly Labyrinth walk is advertised. I am impressed.

After eating my lunch in the gorgeous adjacent Bishop’s Gardens, I make my way down Massachusetts Avenue without much of a plan other than visiting a beautiful mosque I saw yesterday. This is where all the Embassies are located, and after I pass the Iraqi one, the Washington D.C. Buddhist Culture Centre catches my eye. I walk in and ask them what they do. A kind lady tells me that this centre follows the teachings of The Lotus Sutra and the Nichiren School of Mahayana Buddhism. Their main practice consists of chanting the mantra ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’. ‘It’s the key to unlocking your highest potential’, says the lady. ‘Everything transforms when you chant this mantra’. I nod and smile. Again, this confirms my belief in the One-ness of All: in Hinduism, it’s ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ or ‘Hare Krishna’ that unlocks our highest potential; in Sikhism, it’s the Mool Mantra; in Islam it’s ‘Lai Lah il-lal-laho Mohammadur Rasulul-Lah Sal-lal-laho alehe vasallam’. Does it really matter which God/dess we pray to and which path is the ‘right’ one?

My next stop is the Kahlil Gibran memorial. I just stumble across it and am delighted - I love his poetry. And synchronistically, it fits the mood of the day. A bust of the great man’s head stands at the entrance of the little park, and some lines from his poems are engraved on stone benches, in the middle of which is a small, star-shaped pond. I laugh out loud when I read the following lines:

‘I love you my brother
Whoever you are
Whether you worship in your church,
Kneel in your temple or pray in your mosque.
You and I
Are children of one Faith
Fingers of the loving hand
Of one supreme being
A hand extended to all.’

Yes, I guess that really is the message of the day, and one I couldn’t agree with more. If we all accepted that and respected each other’s beliefs, the world would be a better and happier place.

I meander onwards to the Islamic Centre of Washington, a beautiful ornate building with minarets and intricate stone carvings. I ask if I can go inside. ‘Yes, if you cover your head’, is the reply. The caretaker hands me a grubby headscarf but, in anticipation, I have brought my own. So I wrap my shawl around my head, enter the mosque and sit down for a while to read the Koran. The inside of the building is as beautiful as the outside. Only three men are in the mosque apart from me. The one to my left recites loud prayers while bowing from time to time, presumably towards Mecca. The other two are less pious: one is fast asleep and begins to snore, while the third companion talks loudly on his mobile phone when it rings.

I stay for a while and read about the ‘sacredness of sexuality in Islam’ but leave after I come across some advice given to husbands to beat their wives (‘lightly’) if she behaves in an lewd manner. Hmm. I wonder how many times I would have been beaten had I been born a Muslim? Again, I think that God/dess surely can’t have made all of these rules and regulations. Isn’t the most important thing to become conscious and surrender to love? Naturally, organically -without the use of threats and beatings? This is where my tolerance gets tested, despite everything I said previously.

It’s late afternoon, and I’ve come about a mile or two from where I started out. I never make it to the White House. I hop on a bus and ride past Arlington Cemetery, take in a few other sights like the U.S. Capitol, but when I get to the White House area, it’s dark. I’m not too sad about it. Somehow, I feel that my day in Washington D.C. has shown me everything I needed to see.


Washington D.C.'s National Cathedral:

Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Culture Center:

The Kahlil Gibran Memorial:

The Islamic Center:

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


Wise wordsWise words
Wise words

The Kahlil Gibran memorial, D.C.
Inside the mosqueInside the mosque
Inside the mosque

The Islamic Center, Washington D.C.
Just like a Greek temple....Just like a Greek temple....
Just like a Greek temple....

... somewhere in Washington D.C.
Wholefoods in Washington D.C....Wholefoods in Washington D.C....
Wholefoods in Washington D.C....

yes, I know it's pathetic to get so worked up about a supermarket! :-)
And finally....And finally....
And finally....

... the U.S. Capitol

2nd October 2010

Refreshing take on D.C
Loved the fresh path you took to the city. I enjoyed your honest perspective of the church and would have walked away also after "beating your wife lightly". Thanx for sharing!
2nd October 2010

So glad you liked it!
Thanks, Tiziana, for a fantastic description of your short stay in Washington. We so enjoyed having you stay with us, and we are so glad you liked our nontraditional accommodations! Your photos and writing are wonderful, thanks for sharing. We love living near Washington National Cathedral, which is Episcopalian but strives to be a welcoming community for people of all beliefs. We agree that they do it very well. All the best to you, Teresa

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