It was either the last Sunday of 2008 or New Year’s Day 2009. Either way, it was between the election of President Barak Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and their inauguration. It was also a holy day.
As it is too often the case, my husband and I were running just a few minutes late going to Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, “the little church on the hill” on St. Thomas’ north side.
We had to park a ways down the road because all the nearby spaces were taken. As we approached, breathing heavily from our rapid walk, we saw that a couple of unfamiliar large, late-model vehicles had imposed themselves on the road, effectively blocking several cars belonging to more punctual churchgoers.
It upset us both. Mic said something about “tourists” and something about “inconsiderate.” He took a quick look around for someone to chastise but found no one.
We did pass a young-ish man all dressed up in a suit and tie, looking official and out-of-place at our cozy, family-friendly parish. I didn’t pay much attention; I was intent on slipping in the side door as quickly as possible.
Once inside and seated mid-way down the rows of pews, Mic leaned over and whispered. “I think Biden’s here,” he said, or something to that effect. “There’s a lot of guys with earpieces in their ears.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable idea. The holidays draw a lot of visitors to the islands, some prominent national politicians among them, and Biden, of course, is well known as a man of faith.
Confirmation came at the “kiss of peace” section of the Mass when we had a legitimate reason to turn around and get a good look at the people behind us. I still didn’t see Biden then, but the oh-so-obvious Secret Service man directly behind Mic gave him a big grin. Yep, it said, you’re right: political dignitary in the house.
Apparently, Biden was seated near the back of the church. My guess is that he entered quietly shortly after Mass had started and sat down near the door in an attempt to draw as little attention as possible.
At that point, I was worried about a potential philosophical clash. Although their opinion was a minority one within the church, one or two conservative bishops in the States had declared that Biden shouldn’t be able to receive communion because of his stance on abortion: not that he was for it, but, as I understood it, that he would uphold the law that said it was a woman’s right to choose, that she could follow the dictates of her own conscience.
The priest saying Mass that day was a very earnest, humble, dedicated and good man with beliefs far more conservative than many of his parishioners. Would this pose a test of conscience for him? Did he even know the vice president-elect was in the church? And if he did, would he feel compelled to refuse communion to Biden if/when the vice president approached the altar? And how embarrassing would that be?
But the issue never materialized. Whether by design, Divine Providence or dumb luck, that day father stepped to the opposite side of the aisle from where he normally gave communion, thus leaving his deacon to distribute on the side where Biden was sitting.
And that is the only time I actually saw the man, as he walked up the aisle, just another guy in the line of worshippers, though the only one with a female security officer directly behind him.
Disappointment came at the end of the service when the congregation exited the church. Because there was no chance for a second look. Biden and his security detail had left as quietly as they had entered, and they were, apparently, already in their cars, no longer double-parked, but rather heading down the hill.
Later we heard that he had stayed on nearby Water Island. It turned out to be the first of numerous holiday visits he made to the Virgin Islands while he was in office and after – all low-key, often unannounced and always welcomed by a populace that tends to accept newcomers at face value, eschewing celebrity in favor of “everyday people.”