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‘Purpose over politics’ at the National Prayer Breakfast

In its 66th year, the event was a reminder that the dream needs to be stronger than the struggle.

U.S. Representative Steve Scalise (R-La.) speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 8, 2018, in Washington. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

WASHINGTON (RNS) — This week, the National Prayer Breakfast reminded us that the dream needs to be stronger than the struggle.

This year’s breakfast proved to be an inspirational teaching moment in line with the 17th-century maxim “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Those ideas especially surfaced among the keynotes, U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise (R) and Cedric Richmond (D), both representing neighboring districts in Louisiana. Different ethnicities. Different political ideologies. But the manifestation of unity, liberty and charity writ large. They shared converging viewpoints of the June 14, 2017, shooting at the Republicans’ practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity.

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What the breakfast crowd heard was more than Scalise’s inspiring account of survival — crawling after the gunshot wound until his arms went numb. Rather, it also was about competing ideologies’ embracing the same notion of life’s sanctity. Richmond, an outspoken Democrat, was the first member of Congress to reach the hospital to visit Scalise. “We put purpose over politics,” Richmond said.

U.S. Representative Cedrick Richmond (D-La.), left, speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 8, 2018, in Washington, as fellow Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) listens, at right. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Also uplifting was his obvious closeness with Scalise’s family, mentioning them by name. And the two lawmakers heralded the Washington police officers, both African-American, who had been wounded but still managed to shoot the assailant. To accentuate the microcosm of American diversity in that single episode, the crowd was reminded that the officers were a man and a woman, and that the female officer is gay.

The audience, steeped with religious and political conservatives of about every stripe, rose in applause alongside liberals. Near me were executives from faith-based organizations The Navigators, Focus on the Family and Badge of Hope Chaplaincy, as well as members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and a cadet and a youth pastor — and all stood for those heroes. Richmond reminded us that “we don’t disagree on the end goal.”

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And though the baseball banter between the representatives — each teasing the other about their teams — was a treat, their message was clear: In reality, it’s not who reaches home base the most, but that they remember where it is. During one fun exchange, Scalise reminded Richmond that although the Democrats hammered the Republicans  last year (“without me”), the Democrats lost the previous year, in 2016, when Scalise played. The irony is that in 2016, Richmond, a former college pitcher and the ace on the mound for the Dems, played on no sleep and they lost. He had been up all night for a sit-in — to protest gun violence.

Another speaker at the breakfast was retired Maj. Scott Smiley. Blinded by a car bomb in Mosul in 2005, he became the first active-duty blind officer. After commenting on his indefatigable journey to serve (and compete in the Ironman triathlon), he said, “We are not fighting in a world that is seen, but a world that is unseen.” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the gregarious and surefooted leader of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, highlighted the resolve of the Nazi hunter who was the center’s namesake and founder: “He refused to live life as a spectator.” And Hier reminded us that Wiesenthal, educated as an architect, went from being “a builder of homes to bringing justice to killers of homes.”

President Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Washington, with Steve Scalise at right. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Trump, noticeably tired from an intense week, ended his patriotic and God-centered comments with the story of a nine-year-old girl in the front row. Sophia Marie Campa-Peters, afflicted with a rare disease, had told pessimistic doctors, “If you’re only going to talk about what I can’t do, then I don’t want to hear it!” The president added that “millions and millions” prayed and followed her story, in which she realized her dream of walking.

The overarching theme of the day was the bipartisan desire to remain in agreement on the end goals. And to have resolve to fight for justice, freedom, safety and dreams. And all of that bathed in prayer. This event, what the Rev. Johnnie Moore called “The Super Bowl for peacemakers,” comes the day after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave the longest speech in the House’s history. Her resolve to fight for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was evident in her stamina — over eight hours in four-inch high heels. The gathering also comes a week after President Trump introduced much of the world to Ji Seong-ho, whom he mentioned at the breakfast. A maimed Ji escaped North Korea with the help of Chinese Christians. He has given us an iconic image of perseverance — holding his crutches above his head during the State of the Union address.

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The National Prayer Breakfast is a tradition, celebrating its 66th year. The Congressional Baseball Game is as well, in its 80th year. With the breakfast’s uncompromising Christian mission along with its gracious countenance and inclusiveness, it is little wonder that a veteran like Scalise emphatically noted, “It’s the hottest ticket in Washington!”

(Jerry Pattengale is a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and his forthcoming books include “Is the Bible at Fault?,” “The New Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” and “The State of the Evangelical Mind.” He serves on the Board of Managers of Religion News Service. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of RNS.)

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