Every weekday, rain or shine, Rita Warren, commonly known on Capitol Hill as the Jesus Lady, would unload a mannequin with white robes and a beard from her purple minivan and secure the easily recognizable version of Jesus Christ to a metal stand. Warren, a resident of Fairfax, Va., bought the $240 mannequin in Baltimore and now frequents the Capitol on Wednesdays because of Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) construction.
As Handel’s “Messiah” mildly muffles the sounds of hundreds of tourists waiting to be admitted to the building, the moral lobbyist with a fifth-grade education waits. She chats with tourists, gives students lessons on the freedom of speech and talks to congressmen and aides.
“I speak to congressmen and let them know how I feel. I’m a lobbyist. A lobbyist for God,” Warren says, with a slight Italian accent.
Typically, she is clad in colorful, coordinated outfits — pink or yellow — and a hat. In the morning, the tiny 77-year-old sets up her Christ, a pink-and-white stereo and a political sign on the House side of the Capitol. At the moment, the sign says, “A house divided cannot stand,” from the Bible’s Gospel of Mark. She says she hopes to inspire morality by using Jesus as a symbol of faith and good works.
Her mannequin needs some fixing, and Warren is planning on taking him into the shop in Baltimore for repairs when she has time.
Warren says that she is neither a Republican nor a Democrat but that most of her favorite lawmakers are Republican. Her minivan sports bumper stickers for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Bush-Cheney, but she does not support the Iraq war and wants a gradual withdrawal of troops.
“George Bush will go down in history for doing nothing. It breaks my heart. There is no victory [for Iraq],” Warren says. She says Allen will be elected president in 2008.
Over the years, Warren has tried to restore prayer to public schools and ensure that the Capitol’s “holiday tree” is referred to as a “Christmas tree.” Currently, her focus is on stopping abortion.
She has visited Moscow’s Red Square with an entourage to reenact the crucifixion every year, and she puts together an Easter celebration and sets up a Christmas Nativity scene.
Her first event in D.C. was a funeral for America. She rented a hearse, put an Uncle Sam doll in a coffin and drove around the Capitol.
“America was dying,” Warren said. “It was a beautiful funeral with a powerful message.”
In her first political move, Warren worked to bring prayer back into the Massachusetts school system. She believes the restriction on prayer infringes on First Amendment rights.
In her book Mom, They Won’t Let Us Pray … Warren wrote, “The words: ‘No law prohibiting the free exercise of religion’ burned before me.” In the foreword, former House Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.), her favorite congressman, sang her highest praises: “Two hundred years from now, I trust that Americans will be able to thank people like Rita Warren who fight within our system.”
A native of Naples, Italy, Warren came to the United States in 1947 as a war bride, “I’ve been fighting for freedom ever since,” she says. “It’s exciting to have freedom and do all I do.”
She remembers Mussolini’s regime and narrowly surviving bombings and Nazi shootings. Her brother was sent to a Nazi concentration camp because he was born in the United States, but he survived.
Formerly an electronic-assembly worker and a bridal-shop employee, Warren now lives off of her Social Security check, just enough for her “daily bread.” She relies on her friends and family for additional financial support.
Warren says that after living in Massachusetts, she left her adulterous husband of 10 years in her late 20s and almost committed suicide. But she made pact with God on the belief that he would support her family if she devoted herself to his good works.
She has been arrested 20 times, but only once on the Hill, protesting the closing of the Capitol steps to build the CVC. She had spray-painted “JESUS” on the steps and chained herself to a gate.
The police said she was trespassing, but she contends that it was the last day of her permit. The charge was later dropped. Warren is opposed to the building of the CVC, which she says is a “waste of a billion dollars.”
“The good Lord is waiting until it’s finished,” she adds. “He’s going to do something to prove that they shouldn’t have done it.”
Over the years, Warren says, only one person has been outright rude. A man screamed obscenities at her, but he came to apologize the next day.
Warren believes in the separation of church and state.
“Government cannot establish a religion, and religion cannot interfere with the government,” she says. “I am not a religious fanatic. I have faith. Religion is man-made.”
She left the Catholic Church, she says, “to follow the master, not the pope, priests or leaders.” The Vatican could feed the hungry 25 times over, she contends. Now she attends Trinity Methodist in McLean, Va.
“Tourists think that she is some kind of icon,” remarks a Capitol Police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They have their pictures taken with her.”
Warren “gets special treatment, [but] she behaves. … She has the [Capitol Police] department by the balls,” he says, explaining that Warren is allowed to park at the Capitol and use Capitol facilities.
He continues: “She just kind of grates my nerves because I’m a big fan of the Constitution. It doesn’t take a master’s degree to see what she’s doing.”
But Warren doesn’t mind antagonism. She says her faith cannot be rattled. “It’s not just my imagination, or a story, it’s a fact,” Warren confides, and then refers to her Jesus mannequin. “A breeze comes on the plaza whenever I put him up there.”