Oh the Places You’ll Go: the National Mall

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I love flying into Reagan airport in Washington. If I’m on the lucky side of the plane, I look hard until I can see the Washington Monument, that singular, simple obelisk, or the dome of the Capitol Building. I feel like a little kid, maybe even the little kid my parents brought here in the 1960’s, or my own kids I’ve ushered into this semi-sacred national space: the National Mall.

I regret it’s called the “mall,” as I have such an aversion to malls, those massive, collective shopping centers that seem to define all of us as consumers, that it’s all about what we purchase, and have, coveting enshrined. James K.A. Smith helps us perceive how the mall masquerades as a modern religious site: cars parked, people sauntering in full of expectation, they pick and choose among things offered, all of which promise blessing and the good life.

Who thought up this longish quadrangle, two miles long, with the Capitol, the Smithsonian museums, the Washington Monument, now the World War II Memorial, the White House to the side, then the Lincoln Memorial, flanked by the Vietnam, Korean War, the FDR and now the Martin Luther King Memorials, the highlights and determinative moments of United States history all walkable, viewable, serene, dignified? And gosh, the FDR park-like monument has Roosevelt’s beloved dog, Fala.

I came as a child, as our family made the pilgrimage most families make. My greatest thrill was in the Air and Space Museum. The Wright brothers? Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis? Rockets? When I brought my young children, we bumped into Bill Nye the Science Guy in the café! We stood in line through a long night to file past JFK’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda. I wish we’d arrived 3 months earlier to see and hear Martin Luther King’s most fabulous sermon.

The National Mall is an outdoor cathedral of astonishing scope, exceeding even the fondest dreams of George Washington on that day he rode on horseback, accompanied by Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott to the crest of Jenkins Hill and spotted a wooded area, on the crest of the next hill, and decided, “Our Capitol must go there.” The broad, open stretch, a marsh back then, could just be the place a nation would need to embody its ideals and inspire its people to nobility.

I think I feel like a kid every time I visit the National Mall, not because of the reality of America and politics in our country, but because of that implied nobility that could be once more – which you may have to be a kid to believe. I love the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson, reported by quite a few people, to have run – literally – as he came to the Capitol on foot each morning. His brilliant biographer, Robert Caro, couldn’t figure out why Johnson ran – not for office, but toward the Capitol. Johnson showed up early for work, so he wasn’t late. Caro finally walked Johnson’s route as the sun rose – and noticed what had thrilled LBJ and prompted him to run: the rising sun gleamed on the stones of the façade, spectacular every morning. Johnson was stunned by the beauty, and he couldn’t help but run – like a little kid.

I spoke of the Mall as cathedral-like. And why not? Yes, people confuse nation with religion, or nation becomes their religion. But this space captures life and death, sacrifice, dreams of freedom and virtue. All of God’s people in every place have been blessed and challenged by their national identity – with the kid-like dream to make the place its best self.

Why didn’t the 9-11 attackers come here? A blow to the Capitol Dome, or Lincoln seated so serenely in his monument, much less the home of our President, would have staggered anyone with a pulse. Lovely, how this open space, framed by gorgeous buildings, somehow is who we are, or dream of being.

Church hovers nearby. Our United Methodist Board of Church and Society building, prime real estate in D.C., sits next door to the Supreme Court, the Capitol façade LBJ thrilled to right outside its windows. I was a longtime board member of Church and Society, and we tried to ask hard questions of what we, as citizens who are United Methodist Christians, would ask of our nation. I loved it.

And then, just past the Library of Congress, we find Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, whose longtime senior pastor, Alisa Lasater Wailoo, began her career with us at Myers Park. This Church not only pastors people of immense influence in our nation’s capital, but also fields the poor, the homeless, the addicted, who live in haunting proximity to our institutions of justice and good government, almost as question marks, asking if we really live up to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” – which has a Christian ring to it, at least to those of us trying to find the most faithful intersection between our faith and our nationality.