When Pope Francis arrives at the White House at the start his U.S. visit, he will be greeted by a cross-section of American religious life — from leaders of major evangelical groups to liberal Protestants and a Roman Catholic nun who leads bus tours advocating for social justice.
Also present will be a gay Catholic blogger who credits compassionate statements by the pontiff for bringing him back to the church.
Thousands are expected on the South Lawn on Sept. 23 to help President Barack Obama greet Francis as he embarks on a tour through Washington, New York and Philadelphia that will include Masses, meetings with immigrants and speeches to Congress and the United Nations.
Among those who confirmed their attendance at the White House reception are the Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor from Florida who is a confidant of Obama on spiritual matters; the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 40 conservative Christian denominations; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a major U.S. Latino evangelical group that, along with the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, has pressed lawmakers for immigration reform.
Also in the audience will be Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican bishop who's now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think-tank with ties to the Democratic Party, and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, and a leader of the "Nuns on the Bus" advocacy tours.
Campbell's group had been singled out in the Vatican investigation of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, an inquiry that began under Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The investigation ended this year with no major changes for the nuns' leadership group, and with a thank you from Francis for the work of religious sisters.
On this visit, the pope is expected to highlight the need for a generous welcome to immigrants and protection of the environment — two priorities of his pontificate.
"I think it's so important that the pope is visiting because his global message is especially important for the United States," said Campbell, who will also attend the pope's speech to a joint meeting of Congress. "His message of changing our throwaway culture and to address the crisis of exploitation is really the key to changing our world to be more inclusive in the economy and more caretaking about the earth — and a lot of this policy starts in the U.S."
A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for details of the reception. But more than 13,000 people filled the South Lawn when Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008.
The ceremony for Francis falls on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and one of the most important days of the year for Jews, which means American Jewish leaders aren't expected to attend. Still, the reception will showcase the theological breadth of the country's religious groups. Imam Mohamed Magid, who leads the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a mosque with thousands of members in the Washington area, will also attend the event.
"I hope he'll see there's tremendous good in this country," said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in recent remarks about the pope's five-day visit. Chaput will host Francis at the Vatican's World Meeting of Families on Sept. 26 and Sept. 27.
Francis and Obama will talk privately after the South Lawn reception. The president hopes to discuss the environment, immigrants and refugees, and "protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world," the White House said.
Aaron Ledesma was invited last month to attend the ceremony after sharing his story with the White House. For years, Ledesma struggled with his faith as an openly gay Catholic, and he recently started a blog about the subject. Francis' message inspired him to return to Mass last month.
"When you have someone in that kind of position saying compassionate, loving statements like that, that's what's going to draw the Catholic community together. That's what's going to draw the estranged Catholics back in," said Ledesma, a Houston, Texas, native who now lives in Richmond, Virginia.
When asked in 2013 about a purportedly gay priest, Francis famously responded, "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?" However, Francis has also affirmed that same-sex relationships and marriages are contrary to church teaching.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics plan to attend the World Meeting of Families and also hold separate events tied to the conference as they advocate for broader acceptance in the church.
With so many attendees at the reception, Ledesma isn't expecting to meet Francis face-to-face. But he says that just being able to witness "progress and witness hope and compassion and love" will be the ultimate experience. He says he hopes his story will help other gay Catholics to find peace with their faith.
"You don't have to abandon who you are for your faith and you don't have to abandon your faith to be who you are," he said.
Associated Press reporter Rachel Zoll contributed to this report from New York City.
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