WASHINGTON (CNS) — At a time usually dedicated to last-minute Metro dashes, black coffee and the ever-ubiquitous doughnut table, a group of people gather for fellowship in the nation’s capital.
Spirits open and hearts full, they clasp hands, bow heads and pray together before starting their workday. No, this is not a daily Mass, or breakfast at a parish center. This is Capitol Hill, more specifically, the U.S. House of Representatives.
As it turns out, congressional prayer isn’t just saved for the annual prayer breakfast.
Most Americans would be surprised to know that every single week that Congress is in session, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a contingent of House members, gathers in Room 219 of the Capitol, directly across the hall from the House chamber, and join together in extended prayer for the United States, religious freedom, specific requests and each other.
The caucus was started in 2005 by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, who is Southern Baptist. He gathered a handful of members in the meeting room to pray.
What came out of those tiny-but-faithful meetings was an official House caucus that has grown to become a bipartisan group of over 80 congressional members “dedicated to protecting religious liberty and recognizing our nation’s rich, spiritual history.”
According to its mission statement, the purpose of the Congressional Prayer Caucus is to “recognize the vital role that prayer by individuals of all faiths has played in uniting us as a people,” to “collect, exchange and disseminate information about prayer as a fundamental and enduring feature of American life,” and to “use the legislative process … to assist the nation and its people in continuing to draw upon and benefit from this essential source of our strength and well-being.”
“It’s been a wonderful place to meet with fellow believers and pray for our country and for religious liberty,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Missouri, who is evangelical. “We raise prayer requests and spend time praying over those requests and then sign and send encouraging little notes and card to the people we prayed for back in the districts.”
According to Hartzler, the caucus acts as “clearinghouse for information and call to action center” for issues of faith and religious liberty in addition to being a place of spiritual fellowship, support and community for both the members of Congress and their constituents.
Prayer requests can range from anything from medical or financial needs to issues that fall directly under the caucus’ purview of religious liberty. For those in need, Hartzler told Catholic News Service, “it has been a tremendous blessing to know that members of Congress took time to pray for them.”
At a panel discussion on religious liberty held just outside Washington in February, caucus member Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, discussed his experiences in Room 219.
“We come in as fellow believers and leave our politics outside the door,” Neugebauer, who is Southern Baptist, told the panel. “Congress is a little community, we have members who have health problems, marital problems, and financial problems, sometimes they share those and we pray for them.”
When asked why a bipartisan group that prays together is often so split on the House floor, Neugebauer explained that “unfortunately, we probably don’t spend enough time doing that (praying together)” because of the busy schedule typically kept by members of Congress. However, he also acknowledged that “there are people in Congress who think the government should be bigger and some who think that it should be smaller. It’s a simple difference of political philosophy. And, as you can see, those differences exist even in Christian circles.”
While the current caucus is composed only of Christians, however ecumenical, Hartzler emphasized that anyone of any other faith tradition “would certainly be welcome” to join. Republicans make up a majority of official caucus members; Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, who is a Catholic, is one of the Democrats in the group.
The space in which these prayers and supplications take place is no common board room, either.
The Congressional Prayer Room in the Capitol is a place especially set aside for prayer. Its purpose, according to a House of Representatives webpage, “is to provide a quiet place where individual representatives and senators may withdraw to seek Divine strength and guidance, both in public affairs and in their own personal lives.”
The room, featuring rich blue walls, a marble fireplace, and gold curtains, was established by a joint resolution of both houses of Congress in 1954 and officially opened for use in 1955. The room’s designers wanted to create a space that would be welcoming to people of any faith tradition. So, in addition to House and Senate chaplains, the design team also consisted of Catholic and Jewish representatives.
According to the Office of the House Chaplain, “The room’s inspirational lift comes from the stained-glass window with George Washington kneeling in prayer as the focal point. Surrounding him are the words from Psalm 16:1, ‘Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust.’ Above him are the words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: ‘This Nation Under God.'”
When the room was officially opened, members had much to say about creating a sacred, protected space for prayer and divine guidance in the halls of Congress.
“A lasting monument … to this government of ours which has ever been in the forefront of the fight for human liberties and particularly for the right to worship God in accordance with the dictates of one’s own conscience.”
In addition to their regular meetings, the “219 Prayer Group” also established the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “work alongside” caucus members “to build a network of like-minded government leaders who are committed to prayer and action.”
Rep. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, hopes that the movement will grow into something that reaches far outside the four walls of the prayer room.
In a 2009 video explaining the caucus mission and activities, Boozman, a Southern Baptist, stated that “one of the goals that I have … is that one day, for us to be praying and to literally have tens of thousands of people across the United States also praying in unison, for wisdom, for our leaders and for our country” and “that the Lord will continue to bless and sustain us as has been doing for years.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, a Catholic member of the caucus, shared her experiences from the prayer room in a video statement.
“The Congressional Prayer Caucus serves as a signpost amid the sometimes frantic pace and potential distractions that can accompany service in Congress,” said Foxx. “One of the invaluable benefits … is how I am consistently pointed in the direction of the eternal truths that have informed the conduct of American life for hundreds of years.
“Prayer is powerful indeed. My hope is that it continues to play a central role in the life and direction of our great country.”
The caucus meets between the first and second votes of the first day of each week that the House is in session.