Bipartisan, for a moment: When prayer prevails over politics
Rep. Juan Vargas will be on the dais at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning as President Obama addresses what has become a must-attend event for many politicians.
For the San Diego Democrat, though, it's so much more. The former Jesuit missionary has barely missed the weekly prayer meetings held by members of Congress since he was elected, and Vargas says he's excited to bring so many people together in prayer as co-chairman of the event.
Occurring yearly since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast brings together thousands of politicians and religious leaders for a morning of prayer and testimonials.
More than 3,400 people are expected to attend and hear from Obama and a yet-unnamed guest. Vargas said the music will "blow everybody away this time," but wouldn't say more about the mystery speaker.
CSPAN2 is scheduled to broadcast the president's remarks, which begin at 5 a.m. PST.
Vargas sat down with The Times to discuss why the breakfast means so much to him.
Faith makes him a liberal
Vargas, who studied to become a priest for nearly five years, called himself a Matthew 25 Christian, referring to a series of parables told by Jesus on how to live. He recited Matthew 25:35-40.
"You have to look at what Jesus said. What does he do in his public ministries? Well, my gosh, he goes around healing the sick and lame and helping the poor," Vargas said.
He said he tells colleagues, "I get the hallelujah part, I'm all for hallelujah, I'm right there with you, but what about that other part? That part is so central to who Jesus is."
Bringing people together
Vargas said members of Congress who rarely sit down together are forced to at the National Prayer Breakfast.
"Here we all sit, as Democrats, Republicans, Congress members, senators, and for that short moment of time we're all together, we're unified," Vargas said. "We're praying for the president, we're praying for the nation, we're praying for the world. That spirit is one that I wish we had all the time. We don't, but I wish that we did."
Every Thursday morning, 30-40 members meet for an hour of prayer and stories about their faith. Discussing such personal topics means there is less room for rhetoric the rest of the week, Vargas said. When he asks members to pray for immigrants in the country illegally, he said he notices a drop-off in how often colleagues use the terms "anchor baby" or "illegal."
"It's hard to pray with someone on Thursday and then attack him or her on Friday," Vargas said.
Who attends the meetings isn't widely advertised, and members don't talk publicly about what is said. Vargas said the meetings change how he looks at and reacts to other members, even those with very different politics.
"I've learned so much about some of my colleagues at such a deep level, it's surprising," Vargas said. "I have some people on the Republican side that I just love. I know their story now. They've told me something very important about themselves and I respect that."
In his term and a half in Congress, Vargas said he's missed just one — his staff knows not to schedule meetings or interrupt on Thursday mornings.
"That's a sacred moment for me. I want to go and get together with my colleagues and pray for the country," Vargas said.
Several state legislatures, including California's, offer similar weekly prayer meetings and hold a special breakfast to hear from the governor.
A presidential tradition
Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has addressed the breakfast.
"It's a tradition that we hope that no president breaks," Vargas said. "It's important that we get together, both sides, and pray and pray for our nation and peace and the world."
Obama's comments at last year's breakfast drew ire from some in the evangelical community.
Talking about Christians' reaction to violent Muslim extremists, Obama said, "And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."