Onetime political enemies, city department heads whose budgets are being cut and city workers who have reason to fear losing their jobs to the District of Columbia budget crisis joined Mayor Marion Barry yesterday in an emotional affirmation of unity at the mayor's annual prayer breakfast.
More than 1,600 persons, most of them city employes who were granted time off to attend, joined Barry at the Washington Hilton hotel for eggs, bacon, Danish, orange juice, coffee and a rousing speech by The Rev. Tom Skinner that brought the house to its feet.
The program ended with Barry embracing a tearful Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) and promising to resume monthly meetings with Fauntroy and City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, in what was described as a new spirit of cooperation.
Barry, apparently moved by Skinner's call for more compassionate government, said he has trouble sleeping at night with the knowledge that he must lay off workers to balance the city's budget.
The themes of the breakfast program were humanity, cooperation, sharing, and a need for government to direct more of its efforts toward serving people, rather than perpetuating itself.
"All our proclamations of fellowship will be hollow utterance and sham if our words are not followed by lives committed to rescue the perishing and extend to those who are prisoners of anxiety and frustration the resolve to push on," City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers said in his opening remarks.
"Surely, if we each leave this assembly committed to this end, we will make a difference that will brighten the condition of a brother or sister who needs us," Rogers said.
The setting was the hotel's International Ballroom, but Skinner -- a New York-based evangelist who was chaplain for the Washington Redskins last season -- transformed the ballroom into a church.
Skinner told the ad hoc congregation to come out from behind "superficial barriers" such as titles and positions and let humanity show through in their administration of the District government.
"Marion Barry is not The Mayor, he is a person," Skinner said. "Walter Fauntroy is not The Congressman, he is a person."
Skinner said that in order to succeed, a government must have God as its basis and service to the poor as its primary objective. "If any man would be great he must be a servant," Skinner said.
The charismatic Skinner, 37, says he was once leader of the Harlem Lords street gang in New York before he received his evangelical calling. At more than 6 feet tall and at least 250 pounds, his was an imposing presence as he thundered his sermon.
The audience interposed grace notes -- "Amen," "That's right," "Tell it," -- and gave Skinner a standing ovation when he left the podium.
Among those who rose to their feet were former Mayor Walter E. Washington and his former aide, Joseph P. Yeldell, both longtime political enemies of the Barry administration.
Most city department heads and members of the City Council also attended.
Skinner's 40-minute speech touched even jaded ears. "He just plain absolutely turned it out," said mayoral spokesman Kwame Holman.
Tickets to the breakfast cost $10 each, and Barry aides acknowledged they applied some pressure to get employes to ante up.
"It was a little harder this year because of the economy and the budget squeeze," said Matthew Shannon, Barry's special assistant for religious affairs.
Shannon said he sent two memos to employes of the executive office of the mayor. "The first announced the breakfast and told them their participation was expected," Shannon said. "The second was in stronger terms. It's easy to get pledges, but the thing is to get the check."
Shannon said agency heads throughout the city government also asked workers to buy tickets to the breakfast. Rogers sent a memo informing all emplyes that they were free to take the time off if they wanted to attend the event.
At Barry's first prayer breakfast last May, the theme also was the government's duty to serve people, but there was little of the emotion that characterized this year's event -- no gospel singing, no Amens.
In this year of inflation, world crisis and local budget squeeze, the audience belted out the hymns "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art."