In 1953 prayer groups in both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives met together for prayer and breakfast. Over the years this one morning of prayer was expanded and now over 3,000 people from 140 nations gather on the first Thursday in February for not only a breakfast and prayer but also an entire day of fellowship, to strengthen the moral and spiritual fabric of our nation.
Last month, my wife Kate and I joined President Obama, and numerous members of Congress, 3,000 people in total, for the 61st National Prayer Breakfast. It was a memorable day.
It all started back one hot, humid day in August. The roof on our church was being replaced and I was high in the steeple meeting with the foreman of the roofing company. The view out over Joppa Flats was stunning that day. I could see a couple walking up Federal Street, looking at the church. I had a hunch they wanted to come inside for a closer look.
Sure enough, when I descended the steps of the steeple, they were waiting outside the door. They were visiting from Virginia and asked if I would show them around. They were very well read in the history of our church and especially of the Rev. George Whitefield, who is buried in the basement of our church.
As the moments went on he mentioned he served in the House of Representatives. He later asked if I had ever attended the National Prayer Breakfast. I replied I had not, noting, “I think it is by invitation only.” He nodded, and said, “Yes, you must be invited. I would love to have you join me in February.”
Christmas came and went. I had all but forgotten about the representative’s visit that warm August morning. The second week of January, a letter came from the Capitol office building. It was my invitation, complete with the gold Presidential seal!
We arrived in Washington the day before and joined the Northeast Regional dinner the evening before the breakfast. A former Army officer shared about his faith in Jesus Christ, followed by an Australian businessman, who had attended his first Prayer Breakfast 30 years before as a young man, with his father.
The morning came early and we headed over to the Washington Hilton. We had to be seated by 7:30 a.m., as the breakfast began at 8 a.m. I have never gone through a metal detector before to go to a time of prayer. That was a first!
We found our seats quickly, toward the back of the ballroom, slight right of center stage. A businessman from Oregon was already seated at the table. Shortly our host, Rep. Frank Wolf from Virginia, came and sat next to me. A couple from Guatemala and a couple from Texas joined us.
After a few moments, a voice came over the speakers asking us to stand: “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Barack Obama.” President Obama offered remarks about the need for humility in Washington as well as his receiving a devotional email from one of his staff each morning. He noted how this strengthened his faith.
Dr. Ben Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, offered the message that morning. He has gained some attention for addressing everything from taxation to overhauling our health care system, all while standing 6 feet away from President Obama!
But as God often does, those whom you least expect make the biggest impression. The music for the morning was offered by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. His voice seemed to touch the heart of everyone in the ballroom. After his second and last song of the morning, he hesitated when asked to move away from the podium. There was a brief discussion with Sen. Mark Pryor, and Mr. Bocelli was permitted to stay at the podium. His words were simple but to the point. “This is a day I will treasure forever. In my country this would never happen. People of opposing political parties meeting for prayer. I will take this moment back with me. It is a blessing for me to be with you.”
The closing prayer was offered by Olympic Gold medalist Gabby Douglas. While she stands only 4 feet 11 inches tall, her prayer touched the hearts of the tallest in the room. She is a person of deep faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t remember the words of most of those who spoke that morning. But Andrea and Gabby demonstrated to me that God can choose whom He want to speak for Him.
The Rev. Rob John is pastor of Old South Church, Presbyterian, Newburyport.