President Joe Biden’s inaugural address emphasized the need to foster unity in the U.S. The next day, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber III challenged the country to go a step further: to become what Isaiah 58:12 calls “repairers of the breach.”
“Simplistic calls for unity — that is not how we can close the breach,” Barber said in his homily at the inaugural prayer service. “The only way to ensure domestic tranquility is to establish justice.”
Socially distanced and wearing masks, Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, and members of their families gathered at the White House to attend the inaugural prayer service, which was livestreamed from the National Cathedral.
In 1789, the United States' first president, George Washington, attended a prayer service after he was sworn in. And since the 1989 inauguration for George H. W. Bush, the service has been held at the National Cathedral.
Four years ago, President Donald Trump requested that the prayer service following Inauguration Day 2017 not include a customary sermon, but Biden restored the tradition by inviting Barber to deliver a homily.
Barber framed his message around the prophet Isaiah’s advice to resolve the challenges faced in Zion:
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12).
Barber compared this ancient context to the divisions the U.S. currently faces.
“The breach, according to the imagery of Isaiah, is when there is a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be,” Barber said.
“Transposed to our time, the breach is when we say 'One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' with our lips, while we see the rich and the poor living in two very different Americas.”
In his homily, Barber highlighted several of the issue areas that the Poor People’s Campaign — which he co-chairs — has presented to the Biden campaign:
“We must address the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, the war economy, and the false distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. These are breaches that must be addressed. And according to the text, repairing the breaches will bring revival,” Barber said.
The virtual prayer service also included remarks from more than two dozen faith leaders who shared blessings and hopes for the new administration and for all U.S. leaders.
“Guide and bless senators and members of the House of Representatives that they may hear the people's voice and be led to enact laws for the common good and the protection of the most vulnerable,” said Sister Carol Keehan, chief executive of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. “Give them courage and force them to work together to serve the people of this nation faithfully and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations. Keep this nation under your care.”
Faith leaders also shared words of prayer for the judicial branch of government.
“O Lord God, bless all who dedicate themselves to governing in our land,” said Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. “Stir up the passion and reverence of the justices of the Supreme Court for the rule of law and the way of justice. Fill their deliberations with insight and their judgments with integrity. And may they discern the truth and administer the law with impartiality that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served for all.”
This year’s service also included blessings for frontline workers.
“We pray for the health care workers and the essential workers of this nation who answered the call to serve and continue to serve during these long months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said faith leader and activist Valarie Kaur.
“We give thanks for their selfless acts and personal sacrifices, even when they are overwhelmed, even when they are emotionally stretched beyond measure,” she continued.
“We send them strength to continue their life-giving work with our love and support at their side.”