The opening of this year’s 2016 National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton sounded weird to my ears. In New York City you don’t normally hear people saying that they will “pray on that,” or that they “prayed for you” or that they “prayed on the meeting’s agenda.”
The Washington, DC, breakfast, which is 14 years older than Superbowl 50, is the annual celebration of a weekly Thursday morning event, in which about three dozen lawmakers gather in Congress for a weekly hour of peace and Christian prayer. This year’s gathering featured President and Mrs. Obama, singer Andrea Bocelli, HUD Secretary Castro, Rep Juan Vargas (D-CA), Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), Democratic Party Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (Alabama), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who used to live with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, and more.
Andrea Bocelli sang “Heavenly Bread” in Italian, as well as “Amazing Grace.”
Invited to the podium, Rep. Paul Ryan focused on my problem, namely people saying that they are “praying on it.” Ryan said that people – like me – complain that leaders should stop praying and focus on “doing.” Ryan, on the other hand, said that he likes when people are “praying on it” or “praying for him” since he feels that praying is doing. Rep. Nancy Pelosi spoke on John and the Golden Rule, mentioning the Quran and Torah, as well. U.S. Rep. Juan “call me Paco” Vargas, a former Jesuit missionary and self-described Chicano, served in the jungles of El Salvador and is said to now serve in the jungles of Congress as a progressive Democrat. HUD Secretary Castro focused on the common bonds between faiths, unity, compassion, and humility: namely to be a public servant and not a god.
My favorite speaker, honestly, was Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who read from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 58, a piece – he said – that is read by Jewish people on Yom Kippur, and asks those gathered the type of fast they chose and whether it was to fight for the oppressed and share with the poor.
I was ready for President Obama to take the podium, but had to slog through what felt like an extra-long talk – or paid infomercial – by reality television producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress and producer Roma Downey. I jest…. their talk was sincere and Roma’s story of growing up in Derry was bittersweet. The couple is known for the forthcoming Ben-Hur, Son of God, The Bible, Touched by an Angel, and “family friendly” shows like The Voice, Shark Tank, and many reality shows. They plugged their shows, their love of god, and told an uncomfortable joke about two men dying in a car accident. No mention was made about their casting of an actor who looked like Obama to play Satan. They also discussed how the making of their biblical shows required them to bridge dozens of Christian communities as well as advisers from the Jewish community.
Delivering his “sermon from the dais” to the gathered elites, a day after making his first visit as President to an American mosque, President Obama took up the idea of bridges, saying the he prays “that our differences ultimately are bridged. That the God that is in each of us comes together and we don’t divide.” He joked that not all the DC commuters were blessing him when he blocked traffic during rush hour on the way to the breakfast, which by the time he spoke was already a brunch. He then warned (based on Paul’s second letter to Timothy) of the corrosive impact of “fear” in public life and urged a bipartisan group to abide by their faith “even when no one is watching.”
He continued that fear – a primal contagious consuming emotion – erodes community. And it is worse than any outward threat. “Fear does funny things. Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different. Or lead us to try to get some sinister other under control….Faith is the great cure for fear.” He said his faith has helped him overcome the “unique elements” of his job, and gave him fortitude to stand up to enemies and to even “stand up to friends.” Obama also reflected on his personal fears, saying that “the main one I’m feeling right now is that our children grow up too fast.” And wondered if his kids “would call” or “at least text.” He quoted Nelson Mandela, who told him that a brave man is not one who isn’t afraid, but one of can overcome his fear. He then continued on about temporal setbacks, death, and the promise of everlasting life
President Obama continued that
We can draw such strength from the quiet moments of heroism around us every single day. And so let me close with two such stories that I’ve come to know just over the past week. A week ago, I spoke at a ceremony held at the Israeli Embassy for the first time, honoring the courage of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. And one of the recipients was the grandson — or the son of an American soldier who had been captured by the Nazis. So a group of American soldiers are captured, and their captors ordered Jewish POWs to identify themselves. And one sergeant, a Christian named Roddie Edmonds, from Tennessee, ordered all American troops to report alongside them. They lined up in formation, approximately 200 of them, and the Nazi colonel said, “I asked only for the Jewish POWs,” and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” And Master Sergeant Edmonds stood there and said, “We are all Jews.” And the colonel took out his pistol and held it to the Master Sergeant’s head and said, “Tell me who the Jews are.” And he repeated, “We are all Jews.” And faced with the choice of shooting all those soldiers, the Nazis relented. And so, through his moral clarity, through an act of faith, Sergeant Edmonds saved the lives of his Jewish brothers-in-arms.
A second story. Just yesterday, some of you may be aware I visited a mosque in Baltimore to let our Muslim-American brothers and sisters know that they, too, are Americans and welcome here. And there I met a Muslim-American named Rami Nashashibi, who runs a nonprofit working for social change in Chicago. And he forms coalitions with churches and Latino groups and African Americans in this poor neighborhood in Chicago. And he told me how the day after the tragedy in San Bernardino happened, he took his three young children to a playground in the Marquette Park neighborhood, and while they were out, the time came for one of the five daily prayers that are essential to the Muslim tradition. And on any other day, he told me, he would have immediately put his rug out on the grass right there and prayed.
But that day, he paused. He feared any unwelcome attention he might attract to himself and his children. And his seven year-old daughter asked him, “What are you doing, Dad? Isn’t it time to pray?” And he thought of all the times he had told her the story of the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Robert Marx, and 700 other people marched to that very same park, enduring hatred and bigotry, dodging rocks and bottles, and hateful words, in order to challenge Chicago housing segregation, and to ask America to live up to our highest ideals. And so, at that moment, drawing from the courage of men of different religions, of a different time, Rami refused to teach his children to be afraid. Instead, he taught them to be a part of that legacy of faith and good conscience. “I want them to understand that sometimes faith will be tested,” he told me, “and that we will be asked to show immense courage, like others have before us, to make our city, our country, and our world a better reflection of all our ideals.”
And he put down his rug and he prayed.
Now, those two stories, they give me courage and they give me hope. And they instruct me in my own Christian faith. I can’t imagine a moment in which that young American sergeant expressed his Christianity more profoundly than when, confronted by his own death, he said “We are all Jews.” I can’t imagine a clearer expression of Jesus’s teachings. I can’t imagine a better expression of the peaceful spirit of Islam than when a Muslim father, filled with fear, drew from the example of a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi to teach his children what God demands.
The president urged those in the audience to practice their faith out of limelight and “to seek the best in each other and not assume the worst — and not just at the National Prayer Breakfast.”
Did I mention how the eggs were?