Maria works at the Mexican Embassy in Washington DC, and she’s waiting at the 18th Street entrance to the White House grounds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope, who is due to meet with president Obama in about an hour. She’s optimistic because she recognizes a big time reporter from a Mexican television station interviewing people in the crowd. “He must know something,” she says.
I nod. Maybe he does. I’ve followed the crowds of people who are being funneled by security forces and large metal gates towards a series of metal detectors near the Washington Monument. These people are all hoping to catch a glimpse of Francis, an immensely popular pope visiting the United States for the first time.
The people I talk to seem to love everything about this pope. They love the fact that his pope-mobile is a modest looking Fiat. They love his call for climate change. They love his stance on economic justice. They love his stance on undocumented workers and immigration. No one I talk to quite loves his stance on birth control and LGBTQ issues, but they love this pope.
“I think he wants to do more, but he can’t,” says one woman to me about his stance on birth control.
Not everyone loves this pope. A group of people with signs are blaring nonsense about the pope being an Anti-Christ. This annoys Maria, who frowns at the negativity. A mom and dad hustle their daughters past these street preachers. The girls are confused by the men with the signs. These men have made an impact on these girls, though I suspect it’s not the one they wanted to make.
Another man runs up to the street preachers holding a book about the Freemasons. He says that the pope isn’t the problem, it’s Obama and the Freemasons. That’s the anti-Christ! The street preacher with the bullhorn is really annoyed. Another street preacher engages the man and they part amicably. They both agree that despite their differences, they both have freedom of speech.
The pope has been justifiably accused of critiquing capitalism, but that hasn’t stopped what might be hundreds of entrepreneurs from crowding the streets hawking pope tee shirts, buttons, flags, rosary beads and other bric-a-brac.
I see a man talking to the Mexican television crew and holding a sign that pretty much says it all: “Dear Pope Francis: Most Republican legislators and their voters see Latino people as less than human in the United States.” I try to imagine Pope Francis’ reaction to that sign, if he ever sees it.
I see a man in a polar bear costume praising the pope for taking a stand on climate change. “The pope gives me climate hope.”
The entire area has taken on a carnival-like atmosphere. But the true believers, the people most into seeing the pope, are behind the gates now. Only stragglers remain. I lose track of Maria. She probably had to go to work. But I hope she’s still in the crowd somewhere, because suddenly everyone is cheering, and the Pope’s motorcade is rumbling by. The entire staff of a Starbucks pours out into the street, taking a short break while there are no customers in the store. They cheer and snap pictures with their phones, taking a fun break.
The people cheering aren’t necessarily those who traveled hundreds of miles to get here. They aren’t the pope’s hard core followers. They are the workers and citizens of Washington DC, prevented from crossing the street until the motorcade passes, people used to this kind of interruption in their lives. But they are cheering and waving.
And Pope Francis has the window to his Fiat rolled down and he’s waving to the crowd.
“I like the Pope because he goes after everybody,” says a man to me. “He goes after the liberals on abortion and he goes after the conservatives on the economy. He’s telling people that nobody’s perfect.”
Then the man asks me to buy a tee shirt.
I politely decline.