(RNS) — Speaking to a refashioned National Prayer Breakfast gathered at the Capitol with a new board and in a new location, President Joe Biden encouraged leaders of Congress to find ways to unify despite their political and religious differences.
“My prayer for this prayer breakfast is to start to see each other again, look at each other again, travel with each other again, argue like hell with each other again, but then still go to lunch together,” he said Thursday (Feb. 2), addressing an audience of a couple of hundred people in the Capitol Visitor Center that included Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.
Biden used the topic of faith to comment on the diversity of Congress, pointing out that in addition to including people of different faiths and no faith it is also the most ethnically and racially diverse body in its history.
“Differences express infinite creativity of God, who is able to see his reflection in countless ways in different people,” the president said. “It’s also an expression of American conviction that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.”
Biden’s remarks occurred on the day when there were two prayer breakfast events for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower became the first president to make an appearance, in the 1950s. Besides the gathering at the Capitol, one hosted by the Fellowship Foundation — better known as “The Family” — met at the Washington Hilton, where the breakfast has been held since the 1980s.
A new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation organized the event at the Capitol after years of controversy, prompted by a scandal following the 2018 breakfast that suggested that the gathering had become vulnerable to espionage.
The scaled-down event was held in an auditorium of the Capitol Visitor Center with members of Congress each permitted to bring one guest, such as a “spouse, family member, or constituent guest.” Keynote speakers were Bishop Vashti McKenzie, interim president of the National Council of Churches, and Brooklyn Tabernacle Pastor Jim Cymbala.
At the Washington Hilton, some 1,600 people were served a sit-down meal of quiche, pastries and fruit at the International Foundation’s “NPB Gathering.” (In a Jan. 25 interview, former Sen. Mark Pryor said the Capitol gathering planned bagels at “stand-up tables.”) The keynote speech was given by King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the crowd via live video. About a third of the guests were from 90 other countries, A. Larry Ross, media representative for The International Foundation, told Religion News Service via text.
Biden’s speech was also livestreamed at the Hilton event, and he acknowledged the Hilton audience in his remarks, saying, “I’m grateful you’re able to join us in prayer this morning and lift up one another and our nation.”
The early-morning event at the Capitol had two honorary co-chairs, U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath, a Democrat from Georgia, and Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican. They opened the event describing themselves as members of different parties but people with a shared faith. Prior to Biden’s remarks, the two leaders took turns uttering a joint prayer for better days ahead for Congress as it begins its 118th session.
“My prayer today is that a spirit of reconciliation, flowing from obedience to your ageless plan, may be found increasingly in my life and that of my dear congressional colleagues,” Walberg prayed. “I pray the same for President Biden, Vice President Harris and our congressional leadership.”
Added McBath: “Holy Spirit, call to our remembrance continually our responsibility to love, accept and forgive so that we do not lose sight of our responsibility to seek to govern as a unified body.”
As the two groups met and prayed, social media was buzzing with questions about how separate the new twin breakfasts are, after a report by The Young Turks, a liberal-leaning outlet, the previous day revealed emails between former members of Congress that appeared to show “that the two groups are linked,” according to The Young Turks.
Ross, the spokesman for The International Foundation, told RNS that despite there being two events, “we gathered together with one heart in a spirit of love, unity, reconciliation and peace around the person and principles of Jesus and a shared legacy and tradition of more than seven decades since the first event held in 1953.”