In August 1961, at age 11, Luis León boarded a plane bound for his new home: Miami.
He was traveling alone, one of 14,000 Cuban children smuggled into the United States in an exodus known as Operation Pedro Pan, a program run by the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami and the US State Department. The goal: to spirit away the children of Cuba from the new revolutionary government of Fidel Castro.
Thirty-three years later, in 1994, León found himself in Washington, serving as the first Latino rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where every US President since James Madison has worshipped. He still holds the position today.
León, 61, recalls the early years of Castro’s regime: Cubans by the thousands were interrogated, imprisoned, and sent to labor camps, including “undesirables” such as homosexuals and priests.
León’s parents thought his exile would be temporary. “But a part of us knew that Castro was here to stay,” he says.
León and his elder sister made the journey to America separately and found refuge with foster families. Their mother emigrated years later, but their father died in Cuba.
While León’s transition to American life was helped by a family who treated him as one of their own, he struggled at first to master the subtleties of English. He learned American expressions by watching TV shows such as Bonanza.
León’s family in Cuba had been active in the Episcopal Church. Later, as a young man, he had enjoyed reading the works of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. “There was not a shining light telling me to choose this life,” he says. “I went to seminary mostly to explore.”
León, who is married and has two daughters, has a reputation for being inclusive and open-minded, part of what he describes as the “moderate religious voice.”
In 2005, he delivered the invocation at President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, the first Latino to have that honor. León’s friendship with Bush, developed over White House dinners and conversations following Sunday services, provided a way to talk about such issues as social justice and combating AIDS in Africa.
León characterizes their connection as apolitical. As head of a church steps from the White House, he tries every Sunday to maintain a semblance of normalcy.
“You never know when a President is going to be visiting,” says León. “But the best thing you could do is treat them like anyone else who walks through the door. We’re all a unit of God’s grace, regardless of who you are and what you do.”
This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.