Showing Faith in Discretion
For the last two decades, a Virginia mansion has been a private hideaway for world leaders, members of Congress, and even pop star Michael Jackson.
Located on a quiet residential street, the $4.4-million estate called Cedars sits at the highest point of the Potomac River, with spectacular views of Washington beyond the pool and tennis courts. It is owned by the Fellowship, the nonpartisan Christian group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast.
While the annual breakfast is a widely known event attended by a succession of U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries, the Fellowship’s part in the breakfast is low-key. Most attendees think the event is sponsored by Congress or even the president. Likewise, the Fellowship’s role in diplomacy and current events has remained in the shadows. That’s the way the organization wants it, for philosophical and practical reasons.
“If you want to help people, Jesus said you don’t do your alms in public,” Douglas Coe, the group’s leader, said in a rare interview.
A Los Angeles Times review of the Fellowship’s archives, which are kept at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., and an examination of documents obtained from several presidential libraries reveals an organization that has had extraordinary access and significant influence on foreign affairs for the last 50 years.
Eight members of Congress, including Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), live in a grand house on Capitol Hill, which is owned by a sister organization of the Fellowship. The house, which is registered as a church, routinely hosts gatherings for lawmakers and ambassadors. Members of Congress have traveled around the world on the Fellowship’s behalf, sometimes mixing matters of state with religion.
The Fellowship was a behind-the-scenes player at the Camp David Middle East accords in 1978, working with President Jimmy Carter to issue a worldwide call to prayer with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. During the Cold War, it helped finance an anti-communism propaganda film endorsed by the CIA and used by the Pentagon overseas.
Last year, the Fellowship helped arrange a secret meeting at Cedars between two warring leaders, Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame--one of the first of a series of discreet meetings between the two African leaders that eventually led to the signing of a peace accord in July.
Then-Sen. David Durenberger retreated to the mansion in 1986 when he began having marital problems. GOP strategist Lee Atwater came seeking spiritual guidance in 1990 when he learned he was dying. Jackson and his children stayed in October, while in town for a benefit concert for victims of last year’s terrorist attacks.
Jackson’s visit came about as a result of a call from “a friend from the White House,” Coe said. The call came from David Kuo, deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, who helped put together the United We Stand concert. When Kuo learned that Jackson needed a place to stay, he thought of Cedars. “It’s a private unknown place that offers anonymity in a peaceful environment,” he said. “Part of the whole Fellowship belief is you can help people who are down and out by helping people who are up and out.”
Coe, 73, has befriended a succession of presidents and world leaders since arriving in Washington in 1959. In April, he was invited to the White House to speak off the record with employees about prayer.
Coe said the group’s mission is to create a worldwide “family of friends” by spreading the words of Jesus to those in power. He believes that people of every religion--including Muslims, Jews and Hindus--are swayed by Jesus. If he can change leaders’ hearts, he said, then the benefits will flow naturally to the oppressed and underprivileged.
The Rev. Rob Schenck, founder of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital, a Christian outreach center, said that “the mystique of the Fellowship” has helped it “gain entree into almost impossible places in the capital.”
The Fellowship also has brought controversial figures to Washington, where they have met with U.S. officials either at the prayer breakfast or other venues. Among them are former Salvadoran Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who in July was found liable by a civil jury in Florida for the torture of thousands of civilians in the 1980s. He was invited to the 1984 prayer breakfast, along with Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, then the head of the Honduran armed forces. Alvarez, later linked to the CIA and a secret death squad, became an evangelical missionary before he was assassinated in 1989.
“The people that are involved in this association of people around the world are the worst and the best,” Coe said. “Some are total despots. Some are totally religious. You can find what you want to find.”
The Fellowship is a collection of public officials, business leaders and religious ministries that defies easy description. Sometimes known as the prayer group movement, its members espouse a common devotion to the teachings of Jesus and a belief that peace and justice can come about through quiet efforts to change individuals, particularly those in positions of power. Personal outreach is paramount.
They also share a vow of silence about Fellowship activities. Coe and others cite biblical admonitions against public displays of good works, insisting they would not be able to tackle their diplomatically sensitive missions if they drew public attention. Members, including congressmen, invoke this secrecy rule when refusing to discuss just about every aspect of the Fellowship and their involvement in it.
Jennifer Thornett, a Fellowship employee, went so far as to say that “there is no such thing as the Fellowship,” even as she helped lead a group of 250 college students around Washington this month, part of a Fellowship-sponsored national leadership forum on faith and values.
The group’s official name is the Fellowship Foundation, though it does most of its business as the International Foundation. It is based in Arlington, in a sleepy neighborhood of upscale houses, many owned by members of the Fellowship or groups tied to it.
The foundation has nonprofit status under the Internal Revenue Service code and a board of directors that includes a senator’s wife, a former Air Force assistant secretary, an Education Department official and the former director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council. IRS filings show the Fellowship has an annual budget of $10 million and spends most of that on salaries, the National Prayer Breakfast, travel for Coe, members of Congress and others, upkeep of Cedars and a roster of Christian groups worldwide.
Fellowship dollars have gone to an orphanage in India; a program in Uganda that provides schooling, housing and leadership to children; the Senate chaplain; a ministry dedicated to professional golfers; a development group in Peru; and a house in Washington that serves troubled children. The foundation provides Coe with a house on the grounds of Cedars, a minimal salary and annual expenses, which have ranged from $110,955 in 1995 to zero in 2000. The foundation also employs his two sons, who each earned $93,000, according to IRS filings for 2000.
The Fellowship does not solicit money. A handful of wealthy backers, including Detroit lawyer and GOP donor Michael Timmis, Denver oilman Jerome A. Lewis and former Maryland investor Paul N. Temple, support the Fellowship with personal contributions. Private foundations they control also contribute hundreds of thousands yearly to the International Foundation, tax records show.
Other money has come through word of mouth, stock bequests, and donations from friends, estates and even foreign governments including Taiwan, which Coe said sends about $10,000 a year to the Fellowship. He said the ambassador usually delivers the check in person.
International diplomacy has been part of the Fellowship from the beginning. The group was begun by Abraham Vereide, a Methodist evangelist who feared that Socialists were corrupting municipal government in Seattle in the mid-1930s. He thought he could bring about change by organizing regular prayer groups with local business and government leaders.
He took his idea to Washington, D.C., in 1942. A small group of House members began praying together. A Senate group followed. Vereide believed that the small prayer groups could be used to help establish personal contacts with leaders throughout the world.
Pentagon officials secretly met at the group’s Washington Fellowship House in 1955 to plan a worldwide anti-communism propaganda campaign endorsed by the CIA, documents from the Fellowship archives and the Eisenhower Presidential Library show. Then known as International Christian Leadership, the group financed a film called “Militant Liberty” that was used by the Pentagon abroad.
Intimate prayer groups begun by the Fellowship still meet regularly and privately, at the House of Representatives, Senate and throughout federal agencies in Washington. President Eisenhower, persuaded by his campaign manager, became the first U.S. president to attend a prayer breakfast in 1953--part of what the Senate chaplain at the time called a “Return-to-God Movement.” Every president since has made an appearance at least once, turning the breakfast into a worldwide attraction for the prayerful and political alike.
Similar prayer breakfasts, begun by followers of the Fellowship and hosted by governors and mayors, are now popular throughout the U.S. The Fellowship lured Coe to Washington as Vereide’s understudy in 1959. When Vereide died 10 years later, Coe essentially took over.
Under Coe, the group dropped the word Christian from its official name. “Doug gives an overarching leadership to this whole vision of working with leaders,” said Bob Hunter, a former insurance official in the Ford and Carter administrations who has been involved with the Fellowship for years, especially in Africa. “He has so many contacts now. Everyone knows him.”
Former President Bush once referred to Coe as “an ambassador of faith.” If Coe is an ambassador, Cedars is his embassy. The Fellowship bought the mansion, complete with furnishings, for $1.5 million in 1978.
The white-column mansion was once owned by George Mason IV, one of three men who refused to sign the U.S. Constitution and an original drafter of the Bill of Rights. Reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes lived there for a stretch before the Fellowship bought it.
Coe described Cedars as a place “committed to the care of the underprivileged, even though it looks very wealthy.” He noted that people might say, “Why don’t you sell a chandelier and help poor people?” Answering his own question, Coe said, “The people who come here have tremendous influence over kids.” Private Fellowship documents indicate that Cedars was purchased so that “people throughout the world who carry heavy responsibilities could meet in Washington to think together, plan together and pray together about personal and public problems and opportunities.”
The Fellowship likes to embrace the fallen. One minister recalled seeing former United Way chief William Aramony at Cedars the night Aramony learned he was facing criminal charges for embezzling charity money.
Coe described Cedars as a place open to anyone, including the poor, but acknowledged that the poor who most often use the estate are the young men and women from foreign countries who make the beds, tend the manicured gardens, serve gourmet meals and learn about the Fellowship.
The women live in a separate house across the street. The men live in another house called Ivanwald down the block. Several years after purchasing Cedars, members of the Fellowship began buying up houses in this affluent neighborhood.
“This thing grew organically,” said Fellowship member Chris Halverson, son of Richard Halverson, the late Senate chaplain who was one of the Fellowship’s leaders. “More and more people were needed to do the work of helping these senators.”
Today thousands of government officials, international leaders and select business executives meet on the first Thursday of every February for 90 minutes of prayer, granola, fresh fruit, bagels, pastries, coffee and juice.
More than 8,000 people from 170 countries were invited to the National Prayer Breakfast this year; about 3,000 accepted. Tickets are $425. The embossed invitation comes from “members of the Congress of the United States of America.” It asks guests to join the president, vice president “and other national leaders in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of our government” for a morning of prayer.
Presidential seals decorate nearly everything at the event, from the podium, to the registration desk, to the official program. It’s not surprising that many think it’s an official government event.
Kit Webb, a Virginia businesswoman, attended this year’s breakfast at the Washington Hilton hotel. “It’s the government leaders who invited everyone,” declared Webb, as she mingled in the lobby with other guests. “It’s owned by Congress.” The Fellowship doesn’t go out of its way to correct the record. In fact, Coe, ever secretive, goes so far as to assert that the Fellowship doesn’t sponsor the event: “If the International Foundation put it on, would all these people come?” he asked. But the Foundation’s role is detailed in private papers and tax records, where it informs the IRS that it “sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast,” spending $742,604 to put it on in 2000.
An informal congressional committee, made up of members of the House and Senate who meet once a week in small prayer groups, acts as the official host and prepares the program.
Rabbi Samuel Cohon of Tucson, who attended this year’s breakfast, said he was surprised at how overwhelmingly Christian it was, given its government veneer. He told his Jewish congregation he was disappointed that no other religion besides Christianity was acknowledged.
“I believe that most interfaith prayer services would have been much more sensitive than this National Prayer Breakfast, under the auspices of our elected leadership, managed to be,” Cohon said.
The Fellowship pays for those foreign guests, particularly from poorer countries such as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who can’t afford to make it to the breakfast on their own. Many foreign leaders who attend the breakfast get to schmooze with members of Congress and other U.S. officials while they are in town, people they might not ordinarily have access to. Some of the leaders issue news releases back home, declaring that they have been invited to meet with the U.S. president.
“I’m sure a lot of people use the Fellowship as a way to network, a way to gain entree to all sorts of people. And entree they do get,” said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington-based think tank. He has attended every breakfast since 1975.
Coe said the Fellowship does not help foreign dignitaries gain access to U.S. officials. “We never make any commitment, ever, to arrange special meetings with the president, vice president or secretary of State,” Coe said. “We would never do it.”
The archives tell another story.
During the Reagan era, prayer breakfast organizers made sure the president met the international leaders who were there.
Among those who met with President Reagan were a controversial faith healer and spiritual advisor to the president of Zambia, a presidential candidate from El Salvador who was not favored by the U.S. administration, and the king of Tonga.
“Doug Coe or someone who worked with him would call and say, ‘So and so would like to have a word with the president. Do you think you could arrange something?’ ” said G. Philip Hughes, the executive secretary for the National Security Council in the first Bush administration. “It’s an opportunity to put in a plug for something or inch a ball forward.”
At Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearings for incoming State Department officials last year, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), whose wife, Grace, is on the board of the Fellowship, complained that the State Department blocked President Bush from meeting privately at the 2001 prayer breakfast with heads of state from Rwanda, Macedonia, Congo and Slovakia.
“Well, if I might observe, I’m not sure a head of state ought to be able to wander over here for the prayer breakfast and, in effect, compel the president of the United States to meet with him as a consequence,” replied Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.). “I mean, getting these meetings with the president is a process that’s usually very carefully vetted and worked up. Now sort of this back door has sort of evolved.”
While none of the visiting heads of state met with Bush, Democratic Republic of Congo President Kabila and Rwandan President Kagame privately met for about an hour in the living room on the first floor of Cedars. It was the first time the two warring leaders had met face to face.
They sat on salmon-colored couches across from a marbled fireplace, their aides and bodyguards banished to another room.
Kabila’s father, the former president, had been murdered the month before. Rwanda had 30,000 soldiers within Congo’s borders. Starvation and civil war had racked Congo for three years, leaving 2 million dead and an economy in ruins as rebels tried to gain control.
“It was an important meeting,” said Richard Sezibera, Rwanda’s ambassador to the U.S. In the months that followed, members of the Fellowship reached out to both leaders, visiting them in Africa. The two men finally signed a peace accord in July in a deal brokered by the president of South Africa--a move that could be an important step toward peace.
“The fact that they met here probably saved hundreds of thousands of kids,” Coe said.
Douglas Johnston, who heads the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington and is a former Fellowship board member, said faith-based diplomacy is the hallmark of the Fellowship. He said the Fellowship has kept its actions low-key because people might wrongly assume it is crossing the line of church-state separation.
“People forget what separation of church and state is supposed to be all about,” he said. “Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion.”
Church and State
A four-story townhouse on C Street, two blocks from the Capitol, is owned by a sister organization of the Fellowship, and is registered with the IRS and the District of Columbia as a church. It pays no taxes. Yet eight members of Congress live there.
“We sort of don’t talk to the press about the house,” said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who lives there. The 8,000-square-foot detached townhouse has 12 bedrooms, nine bathrooms, five living rooms (including one with a big-screen TV), four dining rooms, three offices, a kitchen--and a small chapel. “The C Street property is a church,” said Chip Grange, an attorney for the Fellowship. “It is zoned as a church. There are prayer meetings, fellowship meetings, evangelical meetings,” he said. “Our mission field is Capitol Hill.”
But at least one member of Congress who lives there, Rep. Michael F. Doyle (D-Pa.), said he didn’t know the property was registered as a church. Doyle would not comment further. “I don’t discuss my personal living arrangements with the media,” he said. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), another townhouse occupant, told Associated Press in 2000 that the house was the most popular place on the Hill to watch NCAA basketball, eat takeout Chinese food and discuss public policy. The story did not mention the Fellowship. “That’s my own life and my own relationships,” Wamp told The Times.
The house is also conveniently located for conducting faith-based diplomacy. The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, said he recently met with several ambassadors from West Africa at the C Street house.
“It’s a real hideaway for congressmen and senators and ambassadors,” said Sheldon, who has been associated with the Fellowship for decades.
He said the Fellowship opened the C Street house to members of Congress because “it helps them out. A lot of men don’t have an extra $1,500 to rent an apartment. So the Fellowship house does that for those who are part of the Fellowship.” Rent is $600 per month for each resident. Meals cost extra, but cleaning is provided by eight college-age volunteers from the Fellowship and a “house mother” who washes the congressmen’s sheets and towels.
Besides Stupak, Wamp and Doyle, residents include Nevada’s Ensign and Reps. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.), John Elias Baldacci (D-Maine) and James DeMint (R-S.C.). Former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) lived there until he left Congress to run for governor.
The Fellowship has given C Street Center $450,000 in grants and loans since 1994, IRS records show.
The group has offered financial aid to congressmen in other ways too. When the late Sen. Harold Hughes’ daughter died in 1976, the Fellowship paid funeral expenses. Hughes left the Senate to become a full-time member of the Fellowship. When former Sen. Mark Hatfield needed money in the 1970s, the Fellowship loaned him thousands, gave him $10,000 as an honorarium, and arranged for a lucrative deal to rent property he owned in Oregon--arrangements later criticized by the board. “We would never do it today,” said board President Richard Carver, assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration.
Coe, who also loaned money to Hatfield, said he has loaned money to other members of Congress, but did not recall the details. “I give or loan money to hundreds of people, or have my friends do so,” he said.
The Fellowship has paid for overseas trips by congressmen in its ranks, who sometimes mix diplomacy and religion during meetings with foreign heads of state. Coe has been dispatched to foreign governments with the blessing of congressional representatives. He has also helped arrange meetings overseas for U.S. officials and members of Congress. In 1979, for instance, Coe messaged the Saudi Arabian minister of commerce and asked him to meet with a Defense Department official who was visiting Riyadh, the capital.
In January, Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) and Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.) traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan on a fact-finding congressional trip, meeting with the leaders of both Muslim countries. But the men, all members of the Fellowship, discussed more than U.S. policy.
“The first thing we did when we met with [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai and President [Pervez] Musharraf was to say, ‘We’re here officially representing the Congress; we’ll report back to the speaker, our leaders, our committees, our government. But we’re here also because we’re best friends.... We’re members of the same prayer group,’ ” Pitts recalled in a recent interview with his college alumni magazine, the Asbury College Ambassador.
“We meet every week together around the teachings of Jesus and we pray together,” he said. “We told them about the National Prayer Breakfast and we invited them to join us.”
Even in the politically sensitive environment after Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic scholars say that most Muslims would react positively to the words of Jesus--unless he was referred to as the son of God. Nevertheless, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says he is “skeptical about religious diplomacy ... in the long run, someone is going to start trying to convert people.”
Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, said, “It would be better for a member of Congress to separate those roles.” Coe said he too would rather that members of Congress who travel overseas keep their public lives distinct from the work they do on behalf of the Fellowship. “I think you need to keep the two hats separate,” he said.
But he dismisses concerns about the Fellowship’s heralding of Jesus. “Religion is divisive. The ideas of Jesus are cohesive,” Coe said. “That is the single most important thing I’ve learned in the last 50 years.”
Some of the members of Congress most active in the Fellowship overseas also are key members of official congressional committees that oversee the State Department and foreign aid. Wolf is chairman of the House appropriations panel that oversees the State Department budget. Pitts is a member of the House International Relations Committee.
Max Kampelman, a former ambassador who is now chairman of the American Academy of Diplomacy, says proselytizing can backfire by antagonizing the other party.
“I don’t feel that is an effective diplomatic tool,” he said.
But in his book “Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft,” former Fellowship board member Johnston argues that the absence of religion in international diplomacy has led to “uninformed policy choices.” The book argues, for instance, that the U.S. failed to see the importance of Islamic clerics in countries such as Iran, which hampered foreign policy decision-making in the Middle East.
The book was inspired by the Fellowship and its back-channel diplomacy. In an illustration of the group’s unusual diplomatic status, Johnston describes how members of the Fellowship traveling in Somalia in 1981 met with its president, who told them he was willing to meet with the president of Kenya “in the spirit of Christ” to avoid bloodshed. They recounted the story to Air Force Gen. David Jones, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Fellowship member, when they returned.
Sometime later, the Somali president paid an official visit to Jones at the Pentagon. Jones invited him to a Fellowship breakfast, attended by some members of Congress, Coe and other Defense Department officials.
Again, they encouraged him to meet the Kenyan president. “You must go. What if the meeting could take place in secrecy? What if separate helicopters could bring each of you to an American aircraft carrier for a rendezvous at sea? No one would have to know about it,” Jones said at the breakfast, Johnston wrote. Within a month, the two presidents met--albeit without help from the U.S. military.
Such private missions trouble some watchdogs. “You’re combining on some level religion and politics,” said Chuck Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.
“When our most powerful and senior officials are operating abroad, under an aegis that is something other than their government titles, they are somehow less than accountable. That is valuable for a citizen to know.”
While in Congress, Hall traveled to Lebanon, Greece, Britain, Slovenia, Japan and India on trips paid for by the Fellowship. Hall said he met with “mostly ordinary people” overseas, though as a courtesy, he often called on heads of state and the U.S. ambassador in that country. He said if the conversation turned to politics, he tried to turn it back to Jesus, and the idea of praying for those in power to become better people by loving God.
“When a personal bond is formed, then you’re able to work on issues like human rights and hunger,” said Hall, who resigned his congressional seat this month to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on hunger issues. The president of the Fellowship board also stepped down to work with Hall in his new job in Rome.
“There’s nothing sinister here, no dark secrets,” Hall said. “It’s the exact opposite of what Washington is about.”
Times researchers Janet Lundblad and Robert Patrick contributed to this report.