This week I had the privilege of speaking at a dinner before a group of persons from different faiths, political parties, and nationalities who gathered in Washington, D.C. for the annual National Prayer Breakfast In my opening remarks, I gestured to two friends who practice an ancient faith tradition called Zoroastrianism. My understanding of its origins is limited. What I do know is that it is one of the oldest religions in the world, combining elements of monotheism with other spiritual beliefs. I also know my two friends—and the goodness of their hearts.
This gathering was a prelude to the National Prayer Breakfast, a rare opportunity, at the height of the coldest part of winter, to remember what unites us. The Prayer Breakfast bills itself as a simple gathering in the name of Jesus. Yet, persons from almost every faith tradition in the world—or those who have no faith at all—eagerly travel from afar to be here.
Every United States President has spoken at the Prayer Breakfast consecutively since 1953. President Eisenhower was the first to attend. It is said that he described the White House as a lonely place. He found the vision of a prayer breakfast particularly compelling, and the tradition began. The Prayer Breakfast also attracts Senators and Representatives of both parties, foreign heads of state, diplomats, members of the military, the media, and business and faith leaders of religions from around the world. Each year a special person is selected to give the main “talk.” These global figures have ranged from Mother Teresa to U2’s Bono, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to King Abdullah II of Jordan, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In many cases, they speak truth to power.
The debate in Washington mostly centers on matters that are material and transactional, not relational, inspirational, and transformational. In reality, there is never enough money nor a satisfactory set of public policies that could ever get us to a place of personal or national well-being. At a time of enormous, and increasing, division in our country, the National Prayer Breakfast offers a more profound way to achieve the possibility of human flourishing: forging relations rooted in respect for each other and in shared appreciation of higher, nobler things.
The gift of the Prayer Breakfast satisfies the need for friendship and for interpersonal connection that lasts beyond a momentary encounter. It creates lifetime bonds. On more than one occasion since its founding, the relationships formed between persons at the Prayer Breakfast have emerged as avenues for resolving or averting political crises. Common political parlance would call these engagements “back channels.” We call them friendships. It’s about generations of people coming together for a few days who have built friendships that have thrived over decades, despite differences.
Last year, I received Buddhist monks from China in my office who gave me a detailed painted scroll of the world, its history, and its future. I have also received Pakistani and Indonesian Muslims, Israeli Jews, and Palestinian Christians. These encounters differ in many respects from other international forums, where celebrity-obsessed elites unfold their perspectives for the rest of us. Perhaps what is more powerful are the unseen, humble, and enduring channels of trusted relations and genuine friendships that arise from authentic moments of solidarity like the National Prayer Breakfast.