National Prayer Breakfast

The congested lobby of the Washington Hilton emptied as a crowd of 3,800 from 140 countries filed into the massive hall, site of the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast (NPB). This annual global ritual, magnetic in its draw and epic in its influence, is one of a kind.

            It began in 1953 when President Eisenhower spoke at the event, as has every president since then.  In recent years the Prayer Breakfast has been guided by the iconic and late Doug Coe, inspiring a worldwide network of prayer breakfasts.

            My first NPB was in 1999, a year, you may recall, when Washington was traumatized by the Clinton/Lewinski shenanigans. Those at my table were manifest in their distain and as President Clinton entered, most refused to stand, something quite unthinkable for an American patriot. Yet when it was his time to speak, he convincingly turned our attention to his recent success in brokering peace in Ireland. As he concluded everyone at my table rose in applause. This year President Trump offered a variety of comments, linking his considerable influence as president to a common American conviction that the United States is deeply Christian.

            Within the complexity of this country deeply divided in restive combat about what is news and what is fake, cultural wars are fought on ideological and religious battlefields. Yet at the Breakfast I found that attendees were inclined to godly justice, warm and loving in their Christian witness, and gracious in finding ways of expressing the claims of Christ to a world in need. Cynicism is an awful scourge, polluting our hearts and corroding our spirits. But it seemed in short supply on the morning of February 8.   Instead, I found myself face to face with Americans who rose above party pettiness, setting aside political wrangling and self-serving promotion.  They seemed deeply moved by need and opportunity and conflict, and resolved to find means of resolution.

            The evening before the Breakfast, I was invited to join visitors from Asia, leaders in various countries, churches, governments and businesses. Three come to mind. Our host, a businessman from Pennsylvania, has visited over 150 countries on behalf of the Prayer Breakfast movement, encouraging leaders in business and civic leadership. His obvious love for and familiarity with foreign leaders added to the sense of God at work in the most surprising of places. Next to me sat a Senator from the Philippines, a man of unusual courage. Having served time in prison for political opposition, his current activity is to convince the International Court in The Hague to convict his president who he believes is in violation of human rights. Then just to my left, a businessman I had met in Almaty Kazakhstan, who is vibrant in his faith, creative in exploring ways of ministering in a communist country in which active faith is always under scrutiny. What a collage of people, from many places, race, tribes and cultures!

            After the Breakfast, we wended our way to the new Museum of the Bible, a stunning facility with the most amazing stories, artifacts and manuscripts. Hosted by the Museum, the Templeton Foundation convened nineteen of us in a forum on peacemaking, chaired by Chris Seiple, a remarkable global specialist and president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. We listened to stories of peacemaking from speakers gracious in their concern for generating models in which true pluralism allows for retention of spiritual integrity. The fear is that inter-religious dialogue will lead to syncretism, and pluralism may generate a subtle watering down of Christian faith in the attempt to foster understanding. However, for this group, this tactic simply isn’t in the cards. The Templeton Foundation is clearly on the side of retaining core beliefs; only with this as a starting point can helpful conversation take place. This global initiative is timely, essential in its exploration of how Christians, with fidelity to the Gospel witness, can foster understanding and cooperative interchange.

            An afternoon highlight was the introduction of Sam Brownback as Ambassador at large of International Religions Freedom, a division of the State Department. Former Governor of Kansas, he was quick to announce that he was ready to deal with religious persecution, an issue of enormous importance in places where religious majorities marginalize and persecute Christians. He ended his speech with a surprising metaphor chosen from military parlance: he was “locked and loaded,” ready for action, leaving an impression that being big and powerful was all the world needed to cure it of this scourge of restriction of religious liberty. However, this was but a blip on an otherwise instructive and illuminating day.  

            This was followed by another taxi ride, this time to dinner at the University Club, a vintage Washington establishment. Friends of North Korea were its hosts, a group of Christians who assist in creating one of the world’s most unusual and surprising initiatives. As I walked in, I was met by Dr. James Chin-Kyung Kim, scientist, innovator, educator.  This uncommon diplomat had years earlier convinced North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong-Il to allow him to build a Christian university in his backyard. After careful negotiations, Dr. Kim’s proposal was endorsed by the North Korean leader, with the provision that North Korea would benefit from having a Christian university.

            The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) has been operating in the North Korean community since 2001. With a student population of 300, its lecturers and professors are Christians who arrive from around the world, teaching their subjects with care not to violate their agreements, yet in relationship with students, conveying the heart of Christ and the ways of his followers.  The stories abound, but they are too sensitive to recount here. This year the medical school is now up and running. The current U.S. embargo on visits of Americans to North Korea puts a wrinkle in their plans, but with encouragement from the North Korean community, they find ways of circumventing the West’s curtailment.  A similar university of some 2,000 students exists in China, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST).   

            The explosion of Christian witness in the past fifty years can in large part be attributed to national movements. Indigenous leaders, born and raised in their local communities and familiar with their linguistics and culture, are core to this rapid rise of the Gospel influence, much of which had originally grown out of the Western mission enterprises. However, what is important to these initiatives today is that Americans – notwithstanding their can-do spirit and inclination to allow their “American exceptionalism” to rule – sensitively and in humility come alongside, offering expertise and resources.  This encourages resolute and aspirational nationals to imagine and lead. St. Paul would be pleased to see this transfer of leadership.

 

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance
March 2018

Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

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