Barack Obama began Thursday with some Washington style prayer and later in the morning will sign an executive order forming the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
This being Washington, praying is not, as Matthew 6 says, a matter of entering into a closet and praying in secret.
Enter into your ballroom...
It is entering into a hotel ballroom with an estimated 3,400 others from 182 countries at the National Prayer Breakfast. The gathering has been a Washington tradition on the first Thursday in February since 1953 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first chief executive to attend what was then called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast. The name was changed in 1970.
President Obama’s address at the breakfast ranged from the personal to the political. He talked about the forces that led him to become a Christian. And he described in detail what he hoped a refocused White House office focusing on faith would accomplish.
The Lord's Prayer in Cherokee
This year’s breakfast opened with the Lord’s Prayer being delivered in Cherokee by a Native American Chief dressed in a red robe. Then, at 7:57 a.m., a band struck up Hail to the Chief as the President and Mrs. Obama entered the ballroom. Vice President Joseph Biden was seated at the head table and Dr. Jill Biden was also on the guest list.
Two firsts marked the gathering at the Washington Hilton. It was Mr. Obama’s first visit to a national prayer breakfast and international breakfast guests were said to be particularly interested in meeting him. And dignitaries did come to the breakfast from around the world. It was announced, for example, that the presidents of Haiti and the Philippines and the prime ministers of Albania and Macedonia were in the crowd.
Join in -- for $5
And it was the first time the breakfast has been available on the Internet – although watching the session as it happened required paying a $5 fee to Eventbuilder.com. The President’s remarks at the gathering were carried live on the cable news channels.
During the week leading up to the meeting, there are a variety of related meetings, meals, and prayer. A friend who is involved in the breakfast, for example, has opened his home in Washington this week to prayer breakfast participants from the Republic of Kazakhstan.
The keynote speaker was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He converted to Catholicism in 2007 and founded the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Other years have also featured speakers from overseas including Mother Teresa.
The limits to humanism
In an eloquent and witty address, Blair pledged support to Obama saying, “we should be as steadfast for you in the hard work as in the celebration.” He observed that what inspires is “the unconditional nature of God’s love.” And he said that, “There are limits to humanism and beyond those limits only God can work.”
Inspired by church folks
In his 11 minute talk, the President talked about his path to Christianity and his hopes for the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “I was not raised in a particularly religious household,” Mr. Obama said. The President said he became a Christian after working in the South Side of Chicago and “working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck – no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose – His purpose.”
Obama said the purpose of his administration’s faith based office, “will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."
Trying to reduce religious divisions
The President also said he hopes the office will play a role in reducing religious divisions. “We will also reach out to leaders and scholars around the world to foster a more productive and peaceful dialogue on faith,” he said.
And the President talked about why he wanted to keep the prayer breakfast tradition alive during his time in office. He said, “We come to break bread and give thanks and seek guidance, but also to rededicate ourselves to the mission of love and service that lies at the heart of all humanity. As St. Augustine once said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”