I was preparing to co-chair the National Prayer Breakfast, an event with thousands of participants from around the world and from many faiths, where presidents from Kennedy and Nixon to Obama and George W. Bush had all spoken, and where the new president, Donald Trump was scheduled to speak. I was nervous about how the event might go and wrestled with my role.
My mind, though, was elsewhere, thinking about my parents, and the examples they had shown me of faith in action. My dad was in hospice with pancreatic cancer, facing his final days. I planned to visit him once the Prayer Breakfast was over, but despite his doctors’ reassurance he would be with us for weeks more, as the sun rose, I wondered whether I should be with him instead.
President Trump had already brought controversy to the event. He had recently announced a so-called Muslim travel ban, offending many participants and impacting some attendees. Several longtime organizers of the breakfast urged me to speak immediately following the president and to help sustain the tradition of an uplifting, bipartisan and nonsectarian breakfast. I was on the agenda, and unsure of what Trump might say and how I would respond, whether to publicly rebut or even rebuke his actions, but after a sleepless night of reflection and prayer, I hoped I was ready for whatever might come.
Scripture warns us about those kinds of moments of uncertainty; Matthew 25:13 urges us to “stay awake because you know neither the day nor the hour.”
* * *
I thought about my dad, who knew something about being awake and ready in his faith and being unexpectedly called to serve God.
He was ready — and awake — when the pastor at our home church, Red Clay Creek Presbyterian, challenged our congregation to make real the call of Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you visited me.” My dad surprised himself by volunteering for regular visits with incarcerated men in the state prison. He had a lot on his plate with three young boys at home and a growing small business to run, but he rose to the moment.
He was ready when he noticed, on his first visit to the prison, a withdrawn man in the corner not interacting with anyone else, and he asked to be paired with him. Paul Byrne was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. Paul was estranged from his family, and improbably, he and my dad developed a real friendship. Eventually, my dad invited him to our home during furlough weekends, and Paul joined our family, regularly fishing or hiking with my brothers and me, joining us at church, in our chores and in our meals.
Paul had been coming to our home for about a year when our family situation changed dramatically. My dad’s business was struggling, he was getting ready to move away for a new job, and the rest of us were staying behind. My parents’ marriage was ending, and my mom was determined to find a home for my two brothers and me that she could afford alone. We went through our belongings — furniture, clothing, toys, and more — to sell at a Saturday garage sale. Paul helped, too; his main job was to keep the till as it filled with cash over the course of the day.
On Sunday, our whole family went to church together, including Paul, who knew this would be his last furlough weekend with us, maybe his last ever. After church, Paul took one last hike in the woods behind the house.
When it was time, Dad sent me to get Paul for the drive back to the state prison near Smyrna, and I walked alone through the woods, calling Paul’s name repeatedly. After a few minutes, I realized Paul had fled. I ran back to the house to tell my dad. Stunned, he rushed to the room where Paul stayed and found all the garage sale earnings still in the cigar box where Paul had deposited them. Paul, though, was gone.
Paul walked and hitchhiked all the way to West Virginia before he was picked up and returned to prison. Years later, I visited him and asked why he had left behind the money from the yard sale. My dad and my family, Paul told me, were the only people who had ever shown him any kindness. He couldn’t bear to do anything that might get us in trouble.
* * *
I shared that story of Paul at a weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast in 2011, soon after I was sworn in as a senator. A conservative senator came up to me afterward and said: “I want you to forgive me, because when you ran for office, I heard terrible things about you, and I believed them. I even prayed for you to lose. Having heard you here, I know better now, and I hope we can work together.”
That senator wasn’t expecting to connect with me that morning, but he had come to that prayer breakfast awake and ready for God’s grace, and it came to him when he least expected it. Over many years, I’ve experienced the same thing, and so have many of my other colleagues from both sides of the aisle.
It was those hopeful weekly experiences that led me in 2016 to accept the invitation to co-chair the National Prayer Breakfast the following February. This would be much different from the Senate Prayer Breakfast, though. It would involve thousands of guests and millions more watching on TV, all in the wake of the bitter 2016 election. I prayed that the same spirit of fellowship and openness I’d experienced at the Senate breakfast would somehow transcend the ugly and divided mood of our national politics.
* * *
As I drove to the hotel where the National Prayer Breakfast was being held, I thought about our simple but profound calling to live out our faith at all times, in all places.
I’d been reminded of that just two days earlier, when I had been with the newly inaugurated president under very different circumstances, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the dignified transfer ceremony of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL who’d just been killed in Yemen. Officer Owens was the first U.S. service member killed since Trump had been sworn in. As we stood together and prayed over the flag-draped coffin bearing Officer Owens’s remains, and as we tried to comfort his grieving family, I could see the impact on the president. I wondered if it was then that he felt the weight of the office — and the consequences of his words and actions — on his shoulders. One of those recent actions was to block refugees from coming to our country, and I saw firsthand the devastating consequence of that ignorant decision. My mother, who decades earlier had taken on the Gospel’s challenge to welcome the stranger by helping to resettle a refugee family from South Vietnam in our community, had recently read in our local newspaper that Delaware had not welcomed a single Syrian refugee.
So once again, she got involved, and by early 2017, she had coordinated with our church, Red Clay Creek Presbyterian, Jewish Family Services of Delaware and a prominent local mosque, Masjid Ibrahim, to bring a young Syrian family from a refugee camp to Delaware. Both parents were from a part of Damascus that had been hit by chemical weapons attacks from the Assad regime; they had met and married in a refugee camp and had a young daughter. Trump’s new travel ban, though, meant the family couldn’t come to the United States.
Over the next two days, I wrestled over what I should say at the event following Trump’s remarks. I debated challenging him publicly for the Muslim travel ban, but the night before the event, Max, a trusted friend and Howard Divinity School graduate, reminded me of Jesus’ calling in Matthew 5:44 to pray for our enemies. He challenged me to believe in the power of prayer, to preserve this event’s focus on prayer and to confront Trump separately. I wrestled with his advice all night, but around midnight, I decided he was right. I would have plenty of chances to speak out against the president’s ban, but I had only one opportunity to help preserve an important national event focused on prayer.
At the breakfast the next morning, I privately expressed to the president my intense disagreement with the Muslim travel ban and said I would work to oppose it, but I also made a simple request: would he allow me to call him up to the lectern, place my hand on his shoulder and pray for him? Reluctantly, he agreed.
I’ve been asked many times since then why I made that decision, and the answer is that I’ve seen the amazing power of prayer and God’s grace, even in the most challenging circumstances. If my parents could be brave enough to live their faith by welcoming foreigners and criminals with nowhere to go, and if my own political opponents could be humble enough to join me in prayer, shouldn’t I be willing to do the same?
Nervous, I approached the microphone. I spoke for a few minutes and described how my father welcomed Paul into our home. Then I said, "If my father’s faith could give him the courage to do that, then the least I can do is show my confidence in the power of prayer.” Despite my strong personal and political disagreements with Trump, I asked him to step forward. I closed my eyes, placed my hand on his shoulder, bowed my head and prayed aloud: “Heavenly Father, we ask that you would give our president your wisdom, that you would open our hearts and his heart, that you would give us a heart for all your children. A heart of humility and grace. Amen.”
My father died later that night, before I could see him one last time the next morning. I still had much to tell him, to learn from him and to thank him for. More than anything, I wanted to thank him for showing me what courage means and to always carry my faith — regardless of the difficulty of the situation — because we know neither the day nor the hour when we will need it most.
* * *
Today, three years later, some have questioned whether I made the right decision to pray for, and with, our president that day. My prayers that he might have a change of heart have not yet been answered, and I’ve spoken out regularly against his policies and positions. I’ve also continued fighting his travel ban, and I’ve written legislation to repeal it.
I haven’t stopped praying for him, though, and I haven’t stopped praying with and for my colleagues from both sides of the aisle, even as our country has become more divided. In the most difficult moments, I’ve been reminded of a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Throughout the past week, my commitment to prayer has been tested as much as any other time in recent memory. I’ve fought bitterly with my Republican colleagues over the rules of the impeachment trial, I’ve watched close friends within my own party battle fiercely with each other for our party’s presidential nomination, and Wednesday, the Senate was once again sharply split as we cast our final votes on whether the president should be removed from office.
Amid all of that, praying for my Republican colleagues and Trump has been particularly difficult, but I’ve been reminded that that’s the point. After all, Jesus didn’t simply call us to treat one another with kindness; He called us to do bold, difficult and challenging things. He challenged us to follow his example of spending time with outcasts and the seemingly unforgivable, from lepers to tax collectors, and He warned us that those things would invite criticism and rejection.
I know that many Americans see Trump as a two-dimensional villain, a person beyond reaching or saving, and I know that publicly praying for him — as I will once again at this year’s prayer breakfast — will invite criticism of me. Like anyone else, I don’t enjoy that or seek that out, but I believe that the most important expressions of faith are the most difficult ones.
I also believe that prayer is about having the humility to know we are all sinners and all fall short of what God would hope for us. Prayer is about restoring our faith in the future and that righteousness will prevail. Prayer is as much about having hope that we will be forgiven as it is about forgiving others. Prayer for me is about witnessing to the possibility of repentance and reconciliation, even across the hardest and most bitter divides.