In a city more inclined to pessimism and political parlor games than prayer, over 3,500 leaders from around the world and across the religious spectrum have assembled in our nation's capital for the 66th National Prayer Breakfast. The annual event has included celebrities, politicians, business moguls and every U.S. president since Eisenhower. The driving force, however, is intentionally and intensely personal — focusing on people-to-people relationships through the teachings of Jesus.
For over 60 years, Doug Coe, an unassuming and unsung spiritual mentor and advisor to international leaders, served as a shepherd and steward of the National Prayer Breakfast. Coe passed away in 2017. His presence will be missed, but the event continues because it was never about Coe, or any hierarchical structure or leader. It was, and is, about connecting everyone else.
The first National Prayer Breakfast was an opportunity for Eisenhower to experience the connection that was happening in small groups of House and Senate members who met weekly in prayer and study. These small, weekly gatherings continue today as an opportunity for members of Congress to deepen friendships, pray, discuss timeless truths and counsel together. You learn a lot about a person by listening to what they say. You learn more about a person by listening to them pray.
Members who attend these meetings find it a critical part of their week in Washington where they are strengthened, rejuvenated and re-centered. Congressional staffers know it is a bad idea to schedule meetings or events that would prevent their boss from attending.
I spoke with Doug Coe's son David who, along with his brother Tim, continue to guide and serve the annual event. David shared an interesting context from the early gatherings his father helped shape. He said it was an era when the Rockefeller empire was driving a philosophy that the way to organize and influence people was through their common interest in and need for money. Doug Coe, along with a group of trusted friends and advisors, believed the way to organize and influence the world for good was through personal relationships developed around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They proved that even non-Christians had a positive and common connection to the principles Jesus espoused and that small groups could come together and influence each other, and their broader community, for good.
David reflected on another important principle that drives their efforts. He said, "People don't connect to institutions, organizations or governments — they connect to people." Driving the people-to-people connection through the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth has, and always will be, the purpose of the groups that gather for prayer breakfast events that now occur around the world.
David illustrated the personal connection through an experience he had traveling in Afghanistan. He said he was introduced to some men from a local village. As they spoke, he asked them how they felt about America. The men immediately responded in angry tones of their hatred toward America. He then asked, "Do you hate me?" Just as rapidly, they spoke in softer tones that they liked him very much. Proof that people do not connect with organizations or institutions — they connect with people.
While government leaders and political power brokers from across the world are divided, the people of the world are not. Prayer is a common bond and balm. Who has not cried out to the heavens in a moment of pain, suffering, trial or turmoil? Prayer is a natural response. Even in our digital age, #PrayFor ... appears whenever tragedy strikes.
Although the National Prayer Breakfast has had some political moments over the years, it is amazing to see the connections that exist when politics, religion and business are put on the shelf and people connect with people one on one. Uniting around people and prayer leads to better dialogue and more meaningful deliberations around the challenges facing the nation and world. Governments don't solve problems — people do. Agencies don't serve constituents — people do. Organizations don't solve poverty, end addiction or eradicate diseases — people do.
The Coe family clearly understands and emulates this person-to-person approach. Jesus, in the midst of a public ministry that often had him among large groups of people, was forever demonstrating that people are served and blessed one by one.
The message from the ancient roads of Jerusalem to the seat of power in Washington and today's National Prayer Breakfast is this: Americans in need are not the government's brothers or sisters — they are ours.