Monday, February 11, 2008

Jesus and Relationships

Two years ago Bono was the key speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. I'd heard of the event before, but I think many of my peers first actually paid attention when Bono showed up. My impression of the Breakfast was that it was a big political event, where the U.S. president speaks and lots of important people gather together. And if I ever really wanted to go, I probably could, if I could fork out enough cash. But I did somehow think it was ironic - or inspiring, not sure which - that the political event of the year was called a "prayer breakfast."

Well, when I arrived in D.C. in mid-January, one of the first people I was to meet was a family friend from England. I knew she had some connection with the prayer breakfast, but I was just hoping she'd have ideas about how to connect me with people who work in international development and women's empowerment (I'm still looking for those contacts, so feel free to send any ideas my way!). Well, she turned out to be amazingly generous with her time and with her relationships: she apologised that it was too late for me to get into the breakfast itself (of course I can't go, I thought!), but she had some other ideas about how I could be involved! So one thing led to another, and eventually I found myself a full-time volunteer hosting the Middle East group all week. And the Middle East people, it turns out, are a great combination of generous and ornery... so in the end I did get to go to some of the fancy dinners, and to the breakfast itself! (Well, the simulcast room, not the main ballroom, but close enough for me: I still had to stand up when the President stood up.)

Anyway, it turns out that it was not just this one friend who is generous with her relationships. That's kind of the whole point. So now I know that money would not have been enough to get me in if I'd wanted to go. There's no website you can go to where you simply punch in a credit card number and sign up. What I would have needed is a personal relationship, an invitation from someone who was part of the larger prayer breakfast network. So it seemed a bit cliquish to me, like a popularity contest: if you can get someone you know to invite you, you're in! And the Prayer Breakfast is a prestigious enough event that the invitation would come as an honour indeed!

But the thing is that I met this group of people two weeks ago, and was invited to everything! They weren't looking for credentials, reputation, or affiliations. They simply thought I was an ok person, so invited me along for the ride. But "they" were also spending the week with members of Congress, ambassadors, wealthy businesspeople, and leaders of international organisations. I sat down to a meal to discover the woman across from me was president of a UN-affiliated institution and the man next to me was part-owner of half a dozen of the biggest companies in the region.

Living in the Middle East, where prestige is everything, I have learned to embrace the fact that being a single young woman without a title (though hopefully the title will be worked out soon enough) means I'm pretty much nothing - but I've learned to take advantage of that low status to get things done. When I did an internship in D.C., I found that things were worse there, not better. When there were meetings in our office, I was allowed to attend only if the visitors were unimportant enough, I often had to sit in chairs far from the main table, and when there was food I and the other interns could only eat once the "important" people had had their fill (and some of those "important" people had physiques that showed off their hearty appetites!!).

So I was completely taken aback by the humility of the Middle East group at a big D.C. semi-political gathering! They knew the rules for reputation and prestige, but were, well, nice anyway! On an aside, apparently the non-D.C. Americans still felt there were slights and image-consciousness and the rest going on, so I guess this depends where you're coming from.

Now, what made this cozy and kind atmosphere possible? Well, the word "Prayer" in the title of the event isn't a coincidence. This whole thing is born out of a tradition from the early years of this century when Congressmen and Senators have gathered together weekly for prayer. And it still happens now. Apparently, one day a week, all ambassadors (and, separately, their wives) are invited to breakfast or lunch to pray. Another day a week it's congressmen. And yet another day a week it's senators. Then once a year, the president joins them. (And now several thousand other people as well.)

This group is totally low-key, since the idea is they just support relationships with these powerful people, so they don't self-advertise at all. But the idea is that they are a fellowship that is seeking to live out the teachings of Jesus. Plain and simple: it's all about Jesus. So the entire week of Prayer Breakfast activities, is a network of friends, who are together learning to live out the teachings of Jesus. No worries if you're not a Christian, they say, because Jesus is for everyone. Some non-Christians totally buy into it - I met one Muslim who explained to us how the Qur'an actually is clearer and stronger in its claims about Jesus than the Gospels are. Other non-Christians are more sceptical - I spoke with a Hindu who felt he was being proselytised. But that's ok, they say. We just want to be friends, and we just love Jesus. As for the Christians, some love it, and others feel it's watering down the message.

You can't keep everyone happy, but by being uncompromising on something very simple - Jesus and relationships - they've done a surprisingly impressive job of keeping lots of people happy. I have to admit, I'm a bit sceptical about a lot of what I saw: the need for a personal invitation to everything, the focus on Jesus but denial of religion as an issue, etc. But as sceptical as I was, the thing is that, well, it works! Which makes me think maybe there's something to it. Something to Jesus, and something to relationships, and something to ignoring the rest.

Right before the first Middle East dinner, I asked two of the women involved in the planning if they had any goals for the evening or for the week as a whole. They both had the same answer: just see what God does. We create the atmosphere, they said, and we bring people together through our relationships, and then just watch God work. Planning, strategising, objective-writing, goal-orientation... all the things American Christians do so well... all thrown out the window. And it worked.

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