An echoing cascade of footsteps and muted prayers are the only sounds inside St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. Each visitor seems to expel the same gasp of reverence as they approach President George H.W. Bush’s flag-draped casket. Near the altar, the military honor guard move in slow, steady unison as they flank the nation’s 41st commander-in-chief.
Muffled tears and whispers of “thank you” and “God bless you” permeate the stillness. Some mourners bow, some stand, some kneel to pray. “I didn’t think I would cry,” a woman quietly allows to her friend. “But this is so overwhelming.”
For hours, nearly 12,000 Houstonians have stood in line at Second Baptist Church, braving the night chill and the late hour — it’s well past 2 am — to get a glimpse of the president as he lies in repose. Some have waited for four hours. The scene is buzzing with a sense of urgency: the president’s funeral procession returned to Houston on December 5 after the state service in Washington, D.C. The public has only until 6 am Thursday, December 6 to view the casket before the invitation-only, private funeral at 10 am.
Hardly a parking spot is available at the mega-church; a constant flow of cars is ushered in by a small army of police and law enforcement. The lines stretch across the campus as visitors wait to be screened and board shuttle buses headed to St. Martin’s, which is just a quick jaunt. The crowd is a microcosm of Houston: every race, ethnicity, age, and socio-economic background is represented. A number of young children cling to their parents in the night chill as they stand under portable heaters. By circumstance or choice, they’ve each chosen to honor the president overnight.
The bus ride to the church is upbeat for 2:30 am as visitors share stories of Bush encounters. One young man who worked at California Pizza Kitchen recalls the shock of the former president once calling in a to-go order and later sauntering in to pick up his food: “I mean, he just walks in. Are you kidding me? The president — getting a pizza.”
Becky Brown has come with her husband, her 7-year-old son, and her 3-month-old daughter. “With two kids, we knew that waiting in line several hours wasn’t going to be an option,” she explains. “We decided to get up in the middle of the night and come pay our respects to George H.W. Bush and the entire family. I admire the way they have been handling their grief in public.” Brown says she has been a longtime fan of President Bush and his “grace” and class. “He was so humble about his own achievements — probably to his detriment, politically,” she says. “The way he comported himself is something we can all take a lesson from. I’m concerned we’ll never have that again in our government.”
The tone instantly changes as the locals empty the buses and form lines at the church. Chatter turns to occasional hushed tones. Inside, there’s a collective holding of breath at the entrance to the cathedral. One by one, mourners cross in front of the casket. It is a steady, solemn stream of quiet, respectful humanity.
As they exit, visitors are handed a thank you card depicting a very rugged and stately President Bush. The card lists his accomplishments, from president to his years at Yale and in the Navy. The thank you is simple and telling:
The family of George H.W. Bush deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindnesses as together we celebrate and honor the life of a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, friend and the 41st President of the United States.
Outside, locals pose for selfies and mill about near the courtyard. As they peruse the cards, they marvel at the president’s many accomplishments, especially his famed story of being shot down as a young Navy pilot in World War II. His name and his work are a constant chorus.
In the picturesque church courtyard, phones light up as they capture the thank-you cards against the church’s facade. The imagery instantly evokes President Bush’s “thousand points of light” mantra.
Though the former ace pilot has slipped the surly bonds of earth, for a moment, it seems this quintessentially Houston president is very much present.