By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The sun had just risen when the head of St. John's Church across the street from the White House broke from his standard practice of avoiding politics and spoke passionately against sweeping new restrictions on immigration ordered by President Donald Trump.
Reverend Luis Leon, St. John's rector, told the 20 people gathered for the early Sunday service that he was a Cuban refugee who came to the United States as a child and that Friday's executive order barring entry to refugees fleeing violence in Syria was "very personal."
"I can't stand to think that we've become the kind of people who reject people who are fighting for their lives," he said. "To send them back to where they came from is unbelievable and unbearable to me."
Leon said his Christian beliefs gave him a "thirst and hunger for righteousness" to stand up against the ban.
Often called "the presidents' church," St. John's always has a pew reserved for the current White House occupant. Former president George W. Bush frequently took his motorcade around the block for the 7:45 a.m. service and chatted with Leon before leaving.
In churches all over the U.S. political capital on Sunday morning, ministers, priests and other faith leaders criticized Trump's orders to build a wall on the Mexican border, refuse visas to citizens of some Muslim-dominated countries, and suspend a program admitting Syrian refugees to the country.
Given that 70 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian, according to Pew Research Center, some saw the "Muslim ban" as the latest turn in centuries of tension between Christianity and Islam.
Up the street from St. John's at the church once attended by former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, who ran against Trump in the 2016 election, Senior Pastor Ginger Gaines-Cirelli said building walls was counter to the work of Jesus.
"Rejecting the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee out of fear is to reject both the teachings of Christ and the person of Christ," she told congregants of Foundry United Methodist Church, adding that plans to exempt Syrian Christians from the ban also go against Jesus' teachings.
Less than two miles away at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, where former President Barack Obama has spoken, Reverend Rutherford Cooke urged people to seek "how God wants us to react in times like these.
“Our bearings are anchored in the word and the spirit of God,” he told the congregation, which was formed in 1866 by freed slaves. "Don’t lose your bearings."
'WHAT A WEEK IT HAS BEEN'
Trump, a Presbyterian, stayed at the White House on Sunday morning. The National Presbyterian Church nearby has invited him to worship, an offer that led to objections from some of its members, according to the church's senior pastor, David Renwick.
Residents of Washington almost exclusively vote Democrat, and only about 5 percent of registered voters are Republicans like Trump. The city's political leanings were evident as many ministers widened their sermons on the traditional day of Christian worship to all the policies and priorities Trump has laid out since his inauguration on Jan. 20.
They included beginning work on repealing the national healthcare law, supposedly muzzling government scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and suggesting a steep border tax.
Last weekend the National Cathedral hosted an inauguration prayer service that outraged so many members that its head had to write a public letter in defense.
On Sunday the cathedral's tone had changed, as Reverend-Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan announced from the pulpit: "We are living in difficult times, days of deep divisions, of uncertainty, of fear and anxiety that leaves many in our nation without any hope for the future.
"Societal advances seem to be under the threat of being stripped away, and there is a sense that the hands of time are quickly spinning in reverse."
Father Moises Villalta urged the 200 people of a wide variety of races and socioeconomic levels gathered at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a popular Catholic worship space in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, to keep working to create peace, saying true happiness is found by acting in solidarity with others.
"What a week it has been," he said. "What a week it has been."
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)