What I Learned From Praying at the White House

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me? 

I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”

But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.

Hozier's 'Take Me to Church' As a Holy Week Reflection

Hozier, photo via

Hozier, photo via

All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.

At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.

The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."

“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.

We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.

Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.

Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.

As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.

I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."

This is Praying

You hear a voice speaking
about a bird dragging its dark universe
of feathers across your yard,
and you realize it must be you

telling the boy how you carried its body
beyond the ambit of your dogs.
One eye, round as a coin,
fixing fear upon you, the other,

half shut. How the bird hauled
its body back into your yard,
dying with a will you could only
admire. Am I the bird?, the boy asks.

You can barely see his face
through the slot, eight inches
from the bottom of the door.
Pie-hole, they call it. You know

he cannot be cured of his crime.
But you can’t help yourself—
this language your body speaks
as you crouch, palms, knees

pressed against the prison floor.
He is nineteen, has an aunt, a mother,
both illiterate, both a hundred miles
away. No one knows why

they have stopped visiting.
You imagine his body, each Sunday,
learning again of their absence.
You imagine his organs, his bones

liquefying inside of his skin.
You imagine his eyes
staring out from his own
gathered flesh. It is three days

before Christmas and you have
ten minutes to spread something
like joy. You think of Vermeer,
the woman in blue, refusing
to obey the physics of light.
You do not even know
the source of your own voice.
Am I the bird? There is a window

beyond the canvas but Vermeer
thinks a shadow will be
distracting. You tell him—
the boy—about your dream.

How your mind had been
like a living thing nailed down,
trembling with what ifs
and how comes. And then

these words: I hear you,
I hear you breathing. A sound
coming from within and
beyond. Not a voice, exactly.

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7.5 Million Americans Lost Their Religion Since 2012

Photo via Wouter Tolenaars /

Sun shines inside an empty church in France. Photo via Wouter Tolenaars /

A new survey shows in stark relief that what some are calling the Great Decline of religion in America continues: Since 2012, the U.S. has about 7.5 million more Americans who are no longer active in religion.

Last week, the 2014 General Social Survey was released. The GSS is the gold standard for sociological surveys. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this multimillion-dollar study gives us the most accurate data on American society — including religion.

(An important point to remember as you see the data: Each percentage point increase represents a growth of 2.5 million adults. So a 3-point rise in secularity, for example, means that about 7.5 million people left religion since 2012.)

A Call to Prayer: Make Violence Against Women History

Violence against women and girls is not only a “women’s issue,” but a human rights issue that affects all of us. We are indeed “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” as Dr. King said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.” The abundant life that Jesus offers is deeply connected to the well-being of others. (John 10:10)

For men and women to experience reconciliation and wholeness, we must prayerfully work together for gender justice. Download our free prayer calendar. It’s full of facts and prayer requests to help you put your faith into action to end violence against women.

Share it during Women’s History Month with your sisters and brothers, your sons and daughters. Pray through the calendar as part of your Lenten journey. Encourage your friends and faith community to raise their voices to make violence against women history.

Together, through prayer and action, we can imagine a new way forward for both women and men—for the flourishing of all God’s children.

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

An image of "Charina" / Photograph © International Justice Mission

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that modern-day slavery is a thriving, lucrative, global business. There are more slaves alive today than during the entire 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Human trafficking generates about $150 billion in profits every year. And 1 in 3 trafficking victims are children.

The statistics are staggering.

For me, it was a single story that moved me through the numbers to a place where I could take action. I heard about Charina* when I joined International Justice Mission. She was one of the first girls we helped rescue in Cebu, Philippines.

Charina was 13 when she was sold for sex.

Her family was very poor, and she had dropped out of school in fourth grade. Her mother was the first one who sold her. For the next couple years, pimps took turns selling her from street corners and seedy piers. They earned extra because she looked so young.

Charina was finally freed from this harsh cycle of violence in 2007. She was addicted to drugs, pregnant and unable to trust the people who wanted to help her. The work of freedom was just beginning.  

My colleagues started meeting regularly with Charina. She needed professional care and a customized plan to meet her unique and complex needs. She needed trauma-focused counseling. She needed to learn how to trust others and to believe in herself once again.

When I first heard her story and saw a photo of Charina—her bright eyes, her small frame—my first reaction was anger. This young woman should never have suffered in the many ways she has.

And that anger is right. It’s not fair.

Charina’s story has illuminated another reality for me, a more hopeful one. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Dear Francis

When it comes to living small,
you were ahead of your time,
which is why I nominate you
patron saint of tiny homes. So
you haven’t heard of them?
Think: chapel for one on wheels
with cedar floors, a loft to sleep,
and a skylight in the roof—here
is where I’d go to pray, and where
I pray to live (pending a friend
to let me squat, and the zonin
board’s OK). It’s a new way
of being poor. I hope you will


Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, lives in Winooski, Vermont.

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Faith Groups Take a Stand for Global Education

People of faith can play an important role in helping each child of God realize his/her potential. Join us in standing up for education by signing the #UpForSchool petition, an urgent appeal to get every child into school—no matter who they are or where they are born.

When we invest in schooling for all children, lives are transformed for generations to come. For example, closing the education gap for girls reduces child marriage rates, leads to more income later in life, and lowers the rate of HIV/AIDs. Access to equal education is not only essential to building stronger economies and a healthy society, but it honors the God-given dignity of children. 

My mom would agree: education is empowerment. It provides freedom and a better future—and no child in the world should be denied it.

Let us all pray that every child can go to school.

And let’s join other faith communities to make sure it happens—sign the petition now.