D.C. mayor begins her first day with interfaith prayer service

Rabbi Levi Shemtov spoke at the opening of newly-inauguraged council member Brianne Nadeau's office.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov prepares to install a mezuzah at the office of newly-inauguraged D.C. councilmember Brianne Nadeau.

Before Muriel Bowser raised her right hand and took the mayor’s oath of office Jan. 2, she listened to the words of an array of religious leaders who prayed that she, her administration and the people of Washington, D.C., will work together and move the city forward.

The mood inside First Congregational United Church of Christ at 10th and G Streets was one of joy and unity, and talk centered on what people had in common, rather than their differences.

“As I look around the room,” Bowser said from the dais, “I see friends,” not people of different religions.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom – the National Synagogue, began his five-minute address to the gathering with a booming “Boker tov,” and then asked everyone to repeat a Hebrew word from Genesis, areivut, meaning “communal responsibility.”


“It means we are all responsible for each other. It means we are all in this together,” said Herzfeld.

The audience quickly caught on and shouted out the word several times, even during speeches by leaders of Christian denominations.

Like Judah, who came forward to promise to be a guarantor of Benjamin in the biblical story of Joseph, everyone should take responsibility for each other and help better the lives of all D.C. residents, said Herzfeld, who had who had been criticized by some Orthodox Jews for agreeing to speak inside a church.

“We must be the ones to walk with Muriel,” Herzfeld said. “Areivut. It means we are one family, one community, and we would no sooner let down our neighbor than we would let down our own sister or brother.”

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, told a story of how a group of people travelling by boat drew lots to see who would ride on the upper deck and who would have to travel below.

After a while those on the bottom became upset and began drilling holes in the side of the ship for better access, Abdul-Malik said. The boat soon became flooded, which caused those in the upper tiers to finally realize they needed to all work together. He then urged Bowser, the city’s “new captain,” to always remember those at the bottom.

The Rev. Frederick Close, of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church – the church Bowser attends – said it is not enough to say the right thing and to have faith. A person must do the necessary work as well, he said. “Faith without work is useless.”

Other speakers at the interfaith prayer service included the Rev. Dr Keith Byrd of Zion Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. J. Talbert of Faith Tabernacle of Prayer for All People, and Senior Minister Sidney Fowler of First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Fowler, whose church hosted the event, declared, “All is new and hopeful on this morning and in this new year,” adding that the service was not about political strategies but about creating “an even more united” Washington, D.C.

First Congregational United Church of Christ has a long history in the District. In the past 150 years, it has welcomed to its dais Frederick Douglas, William Jennings Bryan and Marian Anderson and was the launching pad in 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

During the service, Bowser was introduced by a “very proud mother,” Joan Bowser, who told everyone they made “a wonderful choice if I must say to myself” in electing her daughter mayor. She said beginning the inaugural day with an interfaith prayer service was important. “A day that beings with God is the key to strength and success for that day,” she said.

Her daughter then stepped up to the dais and said, “I am ready. Together we will move our city forward. Let’s go to work.”

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