A few lines of gratitude written by the Rev. Melissa Hollerith led to an invitation to the White House, where she'll welcome Pope Francis on Wednesday during his first visit to the United States. (Photo courtesy of St. Christopher's School)
It was just a few lines of gratitude, the Rev. Melissa Hollerith says. She can’t even remember exactly what she said because she wrote the message on an electronic form provided by the White House website. But it was June 26, and she had just watched President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people shot and killed at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“It was a message of such grace and hope and love and all the wonderful messages that I believe will ultimately heal people when they are broken,” says Hollerith, chairwoman of the religion department and chaplain of the upper school at St. Christopher’s School. “I was just so touched.”
She thanked the president for his words. She might have said she’d like to meet him one day. Then she hit submit and didn’t think twice about it. But that moment in which she paused to say “thank you” has led to something she never anticipated: a White House invitation to welcome Pope Francis tomorrow in the first full day in his first visit to the United States.
“I’m very excited. I have to say, it kind of just blows my mind,” Hollerith says. “I’m a huge fan of the pope and his message of mercy and forgiveness. I’m so humbled to be included.”
Hollerith is an Episcopal priest. Her husband, the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, is rector at St. James's Episcopal Church on West Franklin Street. About seven weeks after the funeral, in mid-August, their home phone rang.
“It said ‘unavailable,’ so we didn’t pick up because we thought it was a solicitor,” she recalls. The answering machine picked up. “We heard someone say something about calling from the White House and a special invitation. We kind of jumped over the sofa to pick up the phone. I literally picked up the phone as she was saying ‘touched by your note.’ ”
Hollerith says she thought maybe she was being invited to an education summit or a day of prayer.
“She said, ‘the pope’s arrival ceremony,’ ” she says. “My husband was standing right there. We were both kind of stunned.”
He’s her plus-one, she says. They left this morning for Washington. The ceremony will be tomorrow morning on the South Lawn of the White House.
Last Sunday, the Rev. Randolph Hollerith gave a sermon about the experience. It underscored something that the Rev. Melissa Hollerith says she tries to teach her students.
“He talked about how you use your words, how you can use them to build up, instead of to wound. We have so many opportunities to do that for one another. It’s such a small thing to tell people thank you and let them know that you have been gifted by what they have said or done.
“Every human being has that capacity to help others heal and sometimes we know there are things in life that we cannot fix. I can’t make it completely well or better, but what I would promise is that I would walk with you, to know you are loved or cared for or known, that is the love that sustains us.
“I just took a small opportunity to say thank you. 'Thank you for offering such a gift of your words.' And what resulted was completely unexpected.”
Hollerith doesn’t know how many people the White House invited. The more, the better, she says. It is a holy moment, she says, “and the pope should be surrounded by thousands of people.”