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National Prayer Breakfast Gets A Rival: The People's Prayer Breakfast

First Posted: 02/01/2012 10:51 am Updated: 02/06/2012 11:44 pm

Every February, the National Prayer Breakfast brings thousands of dignitaries, diplomats, politicians and clergy to Washington, D.C., for one of the most high-profile and exclusive networking events in the country for power-brokers and the faithful.

For over 50 years, the breakfast has been organized by the Fellowship Foundation, a discreet but highly influential group, and has drawn every U.S. president since since Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as famed humanitarians ranging from Bono to Mother Teresa. President Barack Obama has attended each year of his presidency, as he will this year.

But when leaders gather in the Washington Hilton ballroom on Thursday morning, they won't be the only game in town. The National Prayer Breakfast is about to get "occupied" -- sort of.

Just half a mile from the hotel, dozens or perhaps hundreds of a network of clergy and their supporters, part of "Occupy Faith" within the Occupy Wall Street movement, plan to converge for their own "People's Prayer Breakfast."

"We thought prayer shouldn't be used for access to power or to move forward people's agendas," said Brian Merritt, an organizer of the alternative breakfast who is pastor of the city's Palisades Community Church. "Prayer connects us to something greater than ourselves, but also moves us in action for those around us. It challenges us to confront others' needs."

So while dignitaries and the nation's leaders munch on an elaborate meal -- a ticket to the formal prayer breakfast has been $650 in past years -- the free People's breakfast will entertain a little over 200 people for coffee, danishes, meditation and prayer.

"We are not expecting any representatives or senators or the president, but they are all welcome to come," Merritt said of the guest list, which includes rabbis and imams. Like many who will attend, Merritt has become a regular at the city's Occupy protests, where he and other clergy have offered counseling to those camping in parks while trying to bring attention to the rising riches of the wealthy and the increasingly shallow pockets of most Americans -- dubbed "the 99 percent."

"We aren't here to gain political points. We are here to make the point that God is not found exclusively among the powerful, but among the most dispossessed," said Merritt, who typically pastors to an inter-denominational congregation of a few dozen. "It's not okay to be given a feeling of comfort when there are so many people who are suffering. Prayer is something people agonize over, people cry over. But it's not always something that makes those who have power feel comfortable."

At Church of the Pilgrims, the Presbyterian church where the People's Prayer Breakfast will meet, the discussion -- and prayer -- will be for less poverty and more peace. Another topic on Merrit's mind is how churches, some of the nation's oldest and sometimes wealthiest institutions, can examine their own role in maintaining the status quo in American communities.

Though Merritt's breakfast is not a protest, there will be a one across the street from the Hilton. Organized by Quakers and interfaith activists from Occupy Faith, the silent demonstrators will gather before dawn with candles and a large banner that says "Enough for Everyone" to greet breakfast attendees as they arrive. They'll also hold art from children who were were asked to draw their dreams for the future.

Jim Fussell, a member of the Friends Meeting of Washington, said he is protesting with the hope that the nation's decision-makers will pay more attention to struggling Americans like him.

"I want to continue living in a democracy," said Fussell, who has two kids, works three part-time jobs to support himself and cites not having health insurance as one of his greatest worries. "I think a concentration of wealth and poverty will be a threat to that democracy."

While the National Prayer Breakfast and People's Prayer Breakfast events may seem opposed, they actually share supporters. The National Prayer Breakfast has been protested in past years as a symbol of Washington influence and for its alleged ties to violent anti-gay legislation in Uganda, but the event draws a mix of liberal and conservative clergy and policymakers.

For example, Jim Wallis, the well-known evangelical who is founder of the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, plans to attend the Hilton breakfast. But his organization, which runs a magazine by the same name, is also sending a reporter to the People's Prayer Breakfast. And J. Robert Hunter, one of the few members of The Fellowship who has frequently spoken in the media about the breakfast, said in an interview that he donated $100 to the alternative event. Merritt confirmed the donation.

"We should welcome it. I don't see it as a threat at all," said Hunter, who is the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America and has attended the event since 1979. Hunter explained that The Fellowship has inspired him to become more spiritual and to donate his time over the decades to helping NGOs foster development in Uganda.

"I think we have made some mistakes in the past, and people don't know much about it -- there was a lot of secrecy. There has been a struggle about how open we should be." After media coverage over the years criticizing the group's closely-guarded practices, including a prominent book by author Jeff Sharlet about The Fellowship's political reach, the organization recently launched its first web site.

Leaders of The Fellowship, who typically keep quiet, have not indicated any support for the alternative breakfast and did not reply The Huffington Post's requests for comment.

But as far as Hunter goes, he "hopes they do support it."

If he has any time, he's considering stopping by the People's Prayer Breakfast himself.

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