Originally posted June 15, 2011, at koinonia. Republished with permission of the author.
As many of my Facebook friends already know, my parents attended the most recent state dinner at the White House. The dinner, hosted by President Barack and Michelle Obama, was held in honor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It was a magical evening for my parents, who were thrilled to be invited to such a grandiose event.
Here’s my dad’s description of the evening:
We had kept our invitation to the White House state dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel very low key. The first obstacle was believing that the invitation was for real.
Then we wanted to make sure that we would actually be able to attend in light of the uncertainty of air travel out of Iowa (demonstrated by the canceled flight home that added an extra day to the trip).
The morning ceremony was an impressive display by the military honor guard and the U.S. Marine Band. There were excellent speeches by the president and the chancellor that demonstrated their personal friendship and the friendship between our two countries, which is the linchpin for European economic health and global security.
The evening included a reception in the East Room, a chance to greet the president, chancellor and their spouses, the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony to Chancellor Merkel, the meal and a program that included selections by members of the National Symphony Orchestra and pianist George Li.
Li’s performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 was stunning and brought the crowd to its feet immediately. James Taylor completed the evening with a set that included “Going to Carolina,” “Fire and Rain,” “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You,” “Shower the People You Love With Love” and “You’ve Got a Friend.”
For the program, I traded places with the husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, in order to be able to sit next to Ruth. I’ll always remember her head on my shoulder, in the Rose Garden, listening to Taylor.
There were a few conversations of note. During the reception, I visited with the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa). During that conversation, we were able to guess how the invitation had come our way.
President Obama is seeking to keep strong connections with faith-based outreach ministries. It appears that our work in Postville and with Barnabas Uplift (our inter-faith social ministry network providing job training, access to health care and substance abuse education) probably got us on the radar screen.
I’m also on the Board of Regents for Wartburg College, named for the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany. Chancellor Merkel is from that part of Germany. Perhaps those three threads crossed and brought us the invitation.
I mentioned to the president that I was the bishop of the territory that included Postville. President Obama immediately recognized the name of Postville. I did not complete my sentence before he promised that immigration reform is still very much on his mind, there is a lot of work to do, but “we’ll get the job done.”
I shared with Chancellor Merkel that I was a Lutheran bishop. Her eyes seemed to light up when she heard that, as her father is a Lutheran pastor. But there was no question that we connected when I shared that I am a Wartburg regent.
Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker at the University of Northern Iowa (also in our synod). She responded very energetically when I thanked her for her speech and how it demonstrated that she understood and appreciated who we are in northeastern Iowa.
There was a longer conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She immediately asked about the flooding in Iowa, which led to remembering the triple disasters in our synod in 2008: the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid of Postville, the floods and tornado.
I was seated two chairs away from Austan Goolsbee, outgoing chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. It was good to be able to talk rural economics with someone who has such an influence on economic policy.
Excuse me, now, while I go get a broom to sweep up all these names that I’ve been dropping. Thanks for allowing me to share our joy with you.
Find a link to Erik Ullestad’s entry at koinonia at Lutheran Blogs.