Mr. McHale Goes to Washington

[Editor’s note: the following is a first-person reflection on the Rev. Stephen McHale’s experience of the National Prayer Breakfast. To contribute stories from your congregation, click here.]

Early in February the Diocese of California, Christ Church, Alameda, and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Lafayette, helped send my wife Holly and me to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. as guests of U.S. Representative Barbara Lee. It was fascinating, surprising, unsettling, and hopeful, all at the same time.

The National Prayer Breakfast has been taking place annually since the Eisenhower Administration. It gathers leaders in politics, business, the military, and religion for a few days of networking, prayer, workshops and meals. Holly and I shared breakfast with Rep. Lee, a charming American Baptist pastor from San Leandro, and senators from Bulgaria and Germany. The head table included the Obamas, Joe Biden, Reps. Janice Han (D-Los Angeles) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), among others. Following the president, the keynote speaker was Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Obama spoke primarily about the importance of religious freedom around the world and Shah spoke very compellingly about the work which the U.S. does to combat disease all around the world.

We also shared dinners and workshops with folks from all over the world who gather at the uneasy crossroads of religion and politics. To a person, everyone we met was kind and gracious and excited to be there. Holly and I especially enjoyed a long dinner conversation an editor at Harper Collins who edits many of the publisher’s religious writers, including Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rob Bell, Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, and John Spong.

Holly and I participated in the Congressional Black Caucus’ rally against poverty. This was the most spiritual of the events we attended. It included a number of U.S. representatives, the mayor of D.C., a handful of clergy from Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism and Islam, and Jim Wallace, one of my heroes. A gorgeous gospel choir sang while speakers talked about America’s frequent failure to link economic justice to its religious rhetoric. It was quite moving.

I have to admit that I did not know very much about the National Prayer Breakfast before embarking on this trip and I was quite surprised to learn about the organization behind the event. The breakfast is not run by congress. It is organized by a group called The Fellowship Foundation, a conservative Christian organization commonly known as “The Family” or the “International Foundation,” which seeks to provide fellowship, Bible studies, prayer meetings, and networking for political and religious leaders. Affiliates refer to each other as “Friends”, and the group tries to be very private about its affairs. You can read more about it in The New Yorker. My sense is that The Fellowship Foundation is the most influential religious group I had never heard of. They broker relationships at the highest levels of government and promote similar networking at the state and local level across the country.

On the surface, the National Prayer Breakfast is an interfaith gathering, but Christianity is clearly given priority. Within Christianity, a personal relationship with Jesus is clearly given priority. The goal of the Fellowship is to encourage people to model Jesus’ behavior. According to one person with whom I spoke, the Fellowship Foundation is quite skeptical of organized religion. In fact, the only other person I saw wearing a collar besides my wife at the gathering of 3,500 people was a single Roman Catholic chaplain. My guess is that the gathering leans heavily on non-denominational evangelical Christians.

I have to admit that I am still trying to figure out what I think of the whole thing. The goals of fellowship and prayer and living like Jesus are excellent. But the homogeneity of the crowd and the sense that everyone’s theology should be like theirs was creepy. I’m grateful that we had the chance to go, however, because Holly and I started off a good relationship with Barbara Lee, saw much of D.C., and learned much more about the complexity of about the attempt to separate church and state in our country.