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.

Enough for All

For decades in Washington, DC, there has been an event called the National Prayer Breakfast – where clergy, government officials, celebrities, and many other people of faith come together to share in a time of fellowship and prayer for the work that they do. However, there was a sense this year that there was an important population that may not be represented at the National Prayer Breakfast, and that it was important to join in praying with them and in their voice as well.

It was out of this spirit, building off of the Occupy movement, that the Peoples Prayer Breakfast was launched – praying that we would recognize and work so that there is enough for all. Sweet Honey In the Rock’s Dr. Ysaye Barnwell sang, ““I woke up this morning with my mind set on justice…”, and it was this message that united all the people in that room – from members of the Occupy movement, to DC area clergy, to staff of denominational offices, to members of Congress, to folks struggling with hunger, homelessness, and poverty. In so many ways, this breakfast was an extension of the work we have been doing together – from prayer vigils on the lawn of the United Methodist Building, to action alerts supporting a just and moral budget process, to the work we do in our churches – supporting soup kitchens and homeless shelters, to my arrest this summer, kneeling to pray in the Capitol Rotunda.

“We thought prayer shouldn’t be used for access to power or to move forward people’s agendas,” said Brian Merritt, an organizer of the alternative breakfast who is pastor of the city’s Palisades Community Church. “Prayer connects us to something greater than ourselves, but also moves us in action for those around us. It challenges us to confront others’ needs … Prayer is something people agonize over, people cry over. But it’s not always something that makes those who have power feel comfortable.”

The goal of the Peoples Prayer Breakfast was not to offset, or disqualify, the voices of prayer coming from the National Prayer Breakfast. But to remember that when we are praying for our nation, for our priorities, for the work that we do together, that there are more voices that must be lifted up. The call was simply that we must ensure there is “enough for all.” The room was decorated with artwork and placards calling for basic dignities for all, reminding us of the things that “everybody needs” — a warm bed, a decent education, clean water, a roof over one’s head.

These are prayers that are not the exclusive domain of the Peoples Prayer Breakfast – it would be my prayer that it is also what is being lifted up at the National Prayer Breakfast. And it is amazing to think what we might do when we are all praying together.

Hourly Prayers for Peace

Brothers and sisters, my apologies for not getting these on the blog in a more timely manner. Below are the first set of hourly prayer updates on this International Day of Prayer for Peace. May the peace of Christ be with you.

8pm EST – As you close the day, pray that the peace that started in these prayers today is only the start, laying the foundation for a peaceful world.

7pm EST – Pray for our mission workers around the world, that they might carry the peace of Christ w/ them, helping build a world of peace.

6pm EST – Pray for the peace of the church-for your church, for your communion, for the body of Christ-that we might walk in the way of Christ.

5pm EST – Pray for all of those who have been impacted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by terrorism and the war on terrorism globally.

4pm EST – Pray for the influence of violence on our children and youth. Be an example for them, that they might know another way of living.

3pm EST – In this hour, pray for those who continue to suffer from domestic violence and the violence of sexual exploitation.

2pm EST – As millions are impacted by disaster-man made & natural-pray & act to seek sustainable living w/ God’s creation. http://t.co/BkLNxtt4

1pm EST – As millions go jobless & live in a life of systematic poverty & hunger, pray that we might transform systems of injustice around us.

12pm EST – This hour, say a prayer for #TroyDavis, all of those on death row, & this country that continues to seek vengeance through violence.

11am EST – Pray for #Obama, as he speaks at the UN & meets w/ Israeli and Palestinian leadership. And seek mid-east peace – http://t.co/CTB79IiJ

10am EST – This hour, pray for the peace of your family-whoever that is. Pray that they may find the peace they each need, and peace with one another.

9am EST – Move from the peace within, to extend it to your immediate surroundings. Pray for the peace of the person standing next to you.

8am EST – Start this #IDOPP by seeking your own peace. Begin by praying for the peace you need within. Loving your enemies begins with loving yourself.

What do we do now?

I want to start this by thanking so many of you – for your words of support, whether it be through comments on here, twitter, or facebook. This was an action I only took knowing the church was with me – from leadership in Elgin to local pastors in the Washington, DC area. And to hear from so many of you … it is when we speak with each other, through one another, and together that we have a voice that makes a difference.

It was a powerful experience – to kneel in prayer in the Rotunda of the Capitol building, and pray that the decisions made in that building would reflect the values of the faith that so many hold dear. That the Holy Spirit would fill that place, and move our decision makers to seek to make this world more in accordance with the will of God – and to stand where God stands, caring for the poor and feeding the hungry. And then to be arrested for doing that very thing – with 10 other persons of faith.

Many have asked me whether or not I think the arrests yesterday of 11 people of faith made a difference. There has certainly been a lot of press attention to the actions taken. From the Huffington Post, to the New York Times, to ABC News, and many, many more – the word certainly got out about the actions. Combine that with the attention building around the daily prayer vigils, which continued today, and will continue next week, and it would seem that our country is certainly paying attention to what the church is saying.

But this still leaves the question of whether or not this will shift the debate in Washington – one that seems to only want to ask communities that have no more to give to sacrifice to get our fiscal house in order (which does need to happen). Whether it be the hungry through cuts to SNAP, God’s Creation by stripping funding for the Clean Water Act, or those in poverty around the world by slashing food aid – these seem to be the only communities actually being asked to give.

The reality is the action I took yesterday will only have an impact if it has your backing. Your words of support to me have meant so much – but your Senators and Representatives need to hear them, too. There are so many ways you can weigh in. Send them an email, call their offices in DC, or, and this one would have the most impact, visit their local offices (they are listed on their websites). No matter where you go, the message is that we cannot bring our fiscal house in order as a nation on the backs of the poor and vulnerable around the world. We need to consider increasing revenue and cutting security and military spending, too. The poor and vulnerable have no more to give. Or, just let them know that you are holding them in prayer as they consider what God would have them do.  Check out the NCC Poverty Initiative for more resources. BUT THEY NEED TO HEAR FROM YOU. It is time for all people of faith to speak up, and to take action, and seek to live in a nation that reflects our values. What we spend our money on goes a long way toward determining what those values are.

Why I got arrested

I got arrested today, as the Director of Peace Witness Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. And it was something that needed to happen.

There is a long tradition of members of the Church of the Brethren participating in acts of civil disobedience – you could certainly say that the formation of our church was in itself an act of civil disobedience. And ever since, when the church has felt that steps the government was taking were forcing them to be unfaithful, we have responded – living out the values of the realm of God rather than adhering to the laws of the nations in which we reside.

Over the course of the last two and a half weeks, and really for months prior to this, the Church of the Brethren, in conjunction with the interfaith community, has been speaking out on behalf of those living in poverty, those who hunger in the United States and around the world, and those on the margins. We have stated, repeatedly, that it is the role of the government in a just and compassionate society – and the role of our government, in a democracy that claims to speak on our behalf – to offer care and opportunity to these people. People whose voice often doesn’t end up around the power tables of Washington, DC – it is this voice that the church highlights.

And so, over the last number of months, you have seen action alerts. There have been sign on letters, which General Secretary Stan Noffsinger, as well as Brethren Press director Wendy McFadden, have joined. For the last two and a half weeks, the faith community in Washington has held daily prayer vigils outside of the United Methodist Building, and met with both Administration and Congressional leadership. In fact, it was during the meetings with leadership that we realized more needed to be done.

A staff member told us that, for poor and vulnerable communities, what was going to happen was going to be bad. They couldn’t say how bad, but bad. Brothers and sisters, when we consider the priorities with which the government uses our money – and that we have a voice in how that happens – that just isn’t acceptable. It is not acceptable to turn more people toward poverty, while cutting off the support for those that are already there.

And so, I got arrested today. Not only because Members of Congress need to hear from the faith community about the sinfulness of what they are doing – but that you, members of the Church of the Brethren, need to know what your Congress is doing. And that it is time for it to stop. Brothers and sisters, it is time for a just and compassionate budget – one that reflects the values of those who live, move, and breath in this country, and one with which the church can partner to continue the inbreaking of the realm of God.

Why government spending matters

Brothers and sisters, I have spent a long time wrestling with how to phrase and post this blog – as the conversation in Washington, DC, has gotten more and more heated around issues of our debt and deficit, and around cutting spending and not increasing taxes to do so. Action alerts have been going out from Peace Witness Ministries asking you to call on your Senators, Representatives, and the Obama Administration from a variety of angles – from a Brethren sense of mutuality, from a sense of seeking things that make for peace, from our predisposition toward service, and from the perspective of standing with those in poverty and who hunger.

All of those perspectives are extremely important, but today I want to just say it bluntly – government spending matters. It is how we take a world and economic system that is certainly not based on scripture, and seek to give everyone as equal an opportunity as possible to establish self worth, to know themselves to be the beloved children of God that they are. Government spending matters.

I want you to consider the story of Nancy – and watch her story in the youtube video below:

Nancy’s story is just one of many. Half in Ten, a coalition of poverty and hunger related groups, has been collecting these stories to give a face to these programs. When you consider what the voice of the church should be in advocating about government programs, I want you to think about people like Nancy. They are people in our churches, whom our Brethren homes serve, and who come to soup kitchens in our churches. They are your friends and neighbors, and, brothers and sisters, they are the faces and realities of the programs that are now in danger of being cut.

There are lots of reforms we need to do to government spending. It is certainly true that we need to contain the deficit, and not allow it to spiral out of control. But the voice of the church says that what we spend our money on – where we put our wealth, is a foundational statement about who we are as a people. And right now, we are choosing to invest in wars and things that make for wars, and in tax breaks so that individuals can keep more of what they have – rather than extending the table, as we talked about at Annual Conference, and meeting the needs of the broader community around us.

Church, it is time to say no more. Call your Members of Congress today, and tell them you will not stand by while they keep playing these games with programs that are life and death to those most in need amongst us.