comments powered by Disqus
Jeff Walton January 31, 2012
The Rev. Brian Merritt, speaking with reporters at the Occupy DC encampment in Washingon, DC's McPherson Square, announces the "People's Prayer Breakfast." (Photo credit: IRD)
Charging that the National Prayer Breakfast is for “the rich and famous,” an interfaith group aligned with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has announced a competing event. Organized by Occupy Faith DC, the “People’s Prayer Breakfast” will take place the morning of February 2, the same date as the National Prayer Breakfast hosted by members of Congress and the Fellowship Foundation for almost 60 years.
During a January 30 news conference announcing the event, Occupy Faith DC representatives referred to their alternative breakfast as a “parallel” event, rather than a rival one. But the clergy representatives also voiced dissatisfaction with the National Prayer Breakfast.
“Who is going to be represented in the other event are the representatives of the one percent,” alleged Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. Hagler encouraged people of faith to “be the revolutionaries that our spiritual traditions call us to be.”
“It doesn’t seem the American way that [the National Prayer Breakfast] is only a Christian event,” said Robert Brune, a Unitarian Universalist who helped conceive of and organize the People’s Prayer Breakfast. Brune described the National Prayer Breakfast as “right wing conservative.”
The National Prayer Breakfast does not describe itself as an explicitly Christian event, pointing to prominent Muslim and Jewish participants, among others. Event organizers have in the past described the annual breakfast as centering on “Jesus of Nazareth” rather than “Jesus Christ,” his messianic title. According to the New York Times, every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has participated in the annual event, including President Obama.
In contrast, Occupy Faith DC described its event as a “humble gathering of interfaith clergy, lay leaders, [and] faith-based social justice advocates.” The organizers presented their event as focused upon economic inequality, rather than a profession of faith.
“If you believe what is right and what is just, you have faith. Where it comes from doesn’t matter,” responded Imam Johari Malik of the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Malik was responding to a question offered by an atheist at the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square, where the press conference was moved in order to reach more reporters than were at Luther Place Church, the original site.
“I don’t think there is a problem challenging a small group of business interests,” said Occupy Faith DC’s Brian Merritt, a Presbyterian clergyman who pastors a church in Washington, D.C. and who regarded the National Prayer Breakfast as reflecting those interests. “Prayer is not just about access to powerful people – it moves us forward in action.”
Merritt described the People’s Prayer Breakfast as having “more of a focus on those who are suffering economically” and centered on a “concern about disproportionate wealth.”
In addition to Lutheran (ELCA), Presbyterian (PCUSA), African Methodist Episcopal (AME), Quaker, Muslim and Jewish representatives at the news conference, organizers also cited the involvement of Episcopalians, Buddhists and several Unitarian Universalist congregations in launching the event.
“We want to build a solid coalition between faith groups and those who share [the] occupy [movement’s] values,” Brune explained. The Unitarian Universalist activist described the youth of OWS as giving a “vehicle to activism for an older generation that is apathetic.”
“Any movement in history, faith has had to play a role,” Brune asserted. “This is the only way it is going to happen. We would be remiss if the faith community did not embrace the occupy movement.”
Brune went on to quote Union Seminary professor Cornell West, saying: “It’s going to take the intellectual courage of faith communities.”
In addition to critiquing the National Prayer Breakfast for being populated by what they perceived as economic elites, there were also criticisms of political conservatives, including the recent Republican primary election in South Carolina.
“There are millions of people of faith who are suffering due to the ideology that was represented in that contest,” said Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey of the Muslim American Society. “As Jesus said in the temple, sometimes righteousness requires a little butt kicking.”
Just as the National Prayer Breakfast is not a single event, but actually a series of meetings, Occupy Faith DC is planning a strategy session and time of dialogue following the breakfast.
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136