Navigating the Corridors of Power

by Paul Mundey, Pastor, Frederick Church of the Brethren

‘Potomac fever’ is intoxicating, very much alive in Washington, D.C.   Frankly, I enjoy it, since my notion of a great time is surfing three channels of C-Span!  And so, when an opportunity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) materialized about 10 years ago, I grabbed it; I’ve been attending, yearly, ever since.

Ironically, the initial invitation to attend such a rarified event came  from Rickey Bolden, a Brethren Church pastor, ‘starting up’ an outreach (‘859’), to poverty stricken youth in Washington, D.C.  Wanting my support, and the support of the Frederick Church of the Brethren, Rickey invited me to meet others from the International Foundation, the parent group for ‘859’ — and – the National Prayer Breakfast.  Seems the National Prayer Breakfast is the International Foundation’s ‘annual conference’ – gathering thousands yearly, to support their 300+ social service/justice ministries around the world.

But not without controversy. Commonly referred to as ‘The Family,’ the International Foundation has been the subject of at least two books calling into question its motives, ethics and credibility. The validity of those critiques is a subject for another essay but whatever its shortcomings, the International Foundation has attempted much good, in a most unique fashion. For starters, it is a largely a lay movement, striving to cut-through ecclesiastical bureaucracy, returning to the simple message of Jesus. Secondly, it intentionally seeks out the rich and powerful, calling them to serve the poor and power-less. Thirdly, it speaks truth to power, attempting to disturb the established equilibrium of influential people.

Now in all candor, ‘The Family’ appears to be a largely ‘Republican,’ conservative movement.  But there are notable exceptions such as the counter-cultural voice of Tony Hall, a former democratic representative from Ohio, challenging the rich and powerful to give more to world hunger initiatives.  Or the prophetic voice of Barbara Skinner Williams, challenging ‘Potomac fever’ folk to relate to the inner-city and the poor.

The ‘challenge’ of ‘The Family’ is most visible each year at the National Prayer Breakfast itself — as the organizers of the breakfast, intentionally ‘mix-up’ the seating around each table.  Every other event in the main ballroom of the Washington Hilton (the location of the NPB) is carefully orchestrated to match the established protocol and ‘pecking order’ of Washington, D.C. The National Prayer Breakfast punctures the ‘pecking order’ intentionally seating inner city youth (yes, they’re at the NPB) beside congressmen; ‘poor in wealth’ internationals (a major emphasis of the NPB is global outreach) beside ambassadors.

And so, ‘all and all,’ the National Prayer Breakfast is a powerful event, filled with powerful people, challenged to use their power, for the betterment of the power-less.  Sure the NPB looks contrary to that intent, but my decade-long experience of attending the NPB confirms that intent.  Whether it was Bono, NPB’s 2006 speaker, challenging the powerful to support tithing 10% of the federal budget to the poor – or Eric Metaxas NPB’s 2012 speaker, challenging the powerful to leave ‘dead religion’ and pursue courageous faith-acts, such as those of Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce – there’s prophetic intent at the National Prayer Breakfast.   Yes, many who attend are never convinced; they continue their lives of consumption and privilege.  But many who attend go beyond ‘Potomac fever’ toward a new passion and purpose — rooted in Jesus.

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