FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — Karen Tensa, Daily Voice managing editor for Connecticut, traveled last Thursday to join the crowd at the U.S. Capitol and watch as history was made when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress.
Maybe it was a combination of good timing and good karma — or maybe it was just good luck, but my trip to see Pope Francis was much more joyful than I expected.
I arrived alone in Washington, D.C., by Amtrak train in the middle of the night. As I left Union Station, I handed off a bag of cookies to a homeless man sitting near a fountain. He stuttered, “Thank you lady,” and we fist-bumped as we said goodbye.
I joined the line near the Capitol, and we began to filter onto the grounds at 5 a.m. Everyone was polite and friendly, sharing stories of how they got tickets. (Mine came from Sen. Chris Murphy, who gave them out first-come, first-served to callers.) No pushing or shoving for the front in this group of pilgrims.
I staked out a spot and napped on the ground while it was still dark. The long wait was over at 10 a.m., when the giant screens set up lit up with the Pope’s address. I was especially thrilled as he spoke of four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
The highlight came when Pope Francis walked out on the Speaker's Balcony and blessed the crowd. The biggest cheer came as he closed with, “God Bless America.”
Inspired by the Pope’s speech, I checked a map — 2.3 miles — and decided to hoof it to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. As I wound out of the grounds, I heard my name shouted by Sandra Prendergast, a Daily Voice community adviser and a fellow Danbury resident.
Invigorated by the speech and the surprise visit with Sandra (but not so much by my nap), I headed on my way, making small detours along the way due to the tall barriers set up for security.
As my feet began to ache a couple of hours later, a man walking in my direction said he worked for the National Park Service and knew a way through the growing maze.
As we approached the MLK Memorial, my new best friend said, “You might want to just sit on the wall and hang out for while.”
That's when I spotted the NBC News camera set up on the corner. No explanation required: Nearly five hours and over 2 miles later, I was about to meet up again with Pope Francis.
In the next few minutes, I was joined by a few Park Rangers, a handful of tourists and a police officer, who waved over a tour bus and asked the driver to block the road to the parking lot.
The veterans onboard hopped off to join in the moment. We spread out along the curb: Everyone in the small crowd, cameras in hand, had a front row spot.
It's just like TV: First a helicopter went overhead, then the police motorcycles began flying by.
The pope’s Fiat was tiny in comparison to the giant SUVs that made up the rest of the motorcade.
Pope Francis had the window open and waved to us — the Holy Father was just eight feet away! I waved with one hand and took photos with my iPad with the other. (It worked: See above!)
It was over in a flash. We all shared our photos and gasped for breath, shocked by our good luck and up-close view.
After a call home, I checked out the Martin Luther King Memorial. As I left, a Park Ranger slipped me a note and told me to read it later.
Still filled with joy and excitement, I chose to take an even longer route (another 3.2 miles) and headed back, showing off my photo to strangers on the way.
When I got to Union Station, I looked for my homeless friend from the morning. No sign of him, but I found his bags by the fountain and left behind a package of crackers.
I remembered my note and reached into my bag.
“A world without love is not a world worth living in. #PositiveSoul #SpreadPositivity.”
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