I did not know what to expect as I sat amid hundreds of our nation's political leaders, clergy and foreign diplomats at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 3 in Washington, D.C.
It was a striking scene at the dais. Along with a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle sat along with Vice President Joe Biden and astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of the Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from Tucson, Ariz., who is recovering from the recent shooting rampage.
There were people from all the major religions, and many of their respective Scriptures were read during this event. Democratic and Republican members of Congress stood up before the assembly affirming that their faith transcended the political business they transact each day. In fact, many of them attend weekly prayer breakfast meetings as a way to maintain that balance between their spiritual values and their political principles.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the program was the opportunity to listen to the translated speech from Spanish to English delivered by Jose Enriquez, a Chilean miner, who described the spiritual struggles that he and his friends stranded beneath the earth faced until they were rescued in October. At one point he said that after the authorities began sending food, water and other necessities, they lowered down Bibles with each person's name inscribed on the front cover. They prayed and spoke of their fears and dreams, knowing that God's presence was with them every minute. Enriquez appeared to be the one who sustained the spiritual aspiration of his friends as they sat in the darkness praying for light.
Then we heard from Hollywood producer Randall Wallace. He told stories of growing up poor in Tennessee and Virginia. His parents and grandparents were role models to him for learning how to live with less and still maintaining dignity. Then after his rise to being a successful screenwriter, he lost his prosperity after the Hollywood writer's strike. Without any money or prospects, he sat down and wrote the screenplay to what would become the movie "Braveheart." His story was one of maintaining one's humility and faith despite life's obstacles.
Of course, we all wanted to hear from President Obama. He spoke of several issues that he struggles with as a president, as well as a father and husband. His main point was to emphasize the prayer he recites to keep perspective about fighting for the principles he believes in and, at the same time, respect the congressional leaders who do not share his views. He explained how one can respect opposing viewpoints without losing sight of one's own core values.
His prayer for peace in Egypt was particularly poignant. Yes, he expressed his hope for peace to descend upon Egypt and that the people will have the life they deserve to live. One could not help, however, but detect an inflection in his voice which hinted at the difficulties his administration is experiencing toward affecting a positive outcome in this situation, both for Egypt and for the United States.
Finally, the audience enjoyed the moment the president spoke personally about his prayer for his daughter. Like many fathers, he has been praying on the dreaded reality that his oldest daughter will begin going to school dances. He mentioned his fear of the boys at the dances. Everyone smiled, understanding exactly the humanity of the president's emotions as a father.
Finally, the president explained that he did not receive a religious background from his father or, in fact, from his mother, either. After college graduation he started in Chicago as a community organizer working with local clergy. At that time he examined religion for the first time in his life. It was then, he explained, that he eventually became a Christian.
The final benediction was delivered by Kelly. He explained that he was able to travel and be at the breakfast because his wife was steadily improving. He spoke of his previous lack of interest in faith and religion. As an astronaut, he accepted the randomness of the universe and that spirituality or religion itself did not impact his thinking about the world. Now he looks at life quite differently. He described how this evolution of his "destiny" symbolized a new way of thinking about the world since the trauma of what happened to his wife. The audience could feel the intensity and sincerity of this transcendent moment in his life. He quoted from his wife's rabbi, who delivered a beautiful prayer of healing standing over Gifford's bed.
I admit that I probably expected a program that would not be ecumenical. I am happy to report the leaders did their best to keep a healthy balance, affirming religion in general without proselytizing everyone to one particular faith.
So I would advise my readers: Rather than putting down or even demonizing our elected representatives, try to pray for their well-being. Pray for their safety as well as for their commitment to set a good example of civic leadership to our great nation.
Yes, we do need a national prayer day for our country and for our national leaders. Can we pray for our leaders to conduct the nation's business by drawing upon the wisdom from their religions and showing reverence for the spiritual values each of them embraces?
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.