Debra Haffner Prays With The President

The email was exciting: President Obama invites you to the annual Easter Prayer Breakfast, held in the East Room the day after Palm Sunday.

“White House invitations are always a little mysterious,” says Rev. Debra Haffner, president of the Westport-based Religious Institute. She thinks it may have been because her multi-faith organization — which advocates for sexual health, education and justice — has supported contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act.

This was Rev. Haffner’s 3rd trip to the White House. But it was the smallest gathering — 150 clergy — and, in many ways, the most moving.

“Some people call these events ‘window dressing,'” she said. “But it was very profound.”

Rev. Debra Haffner sat this close to President Obama (and George Washington) in the East Room.

Rev. Debra Haffner sat this close to President Obama (and George Washington) in the East Room.

President Obama opened his remarks by citing the shootings the previous day at 2 Jewish facilities in Kansas. He said that no one should be fearful when they pray, and called on members of all faiths to combat the ignorance and intolerance that leads to anti-Semitism, hatred and violence.

Rev. Haffner — who laughs that she may have been “the 1st Jewish-Unitarian Universalist minister” at the event — had walked over from her hotel with Pastor Joel Hunter. He leads a 20,000-member mega-church in Orlando, and gave the opening prayer.

“People across the theological spectrum prayed together,” Rev. Haffner notes. “There was a very inclusive message, in a very diverse room.”

Dr. Otis Moss — who took over at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ after Rev. Jeremiah Wright stepped down — gave a powerful sermon. The black theologian tied together Anne Frank, Martin Luther King and the Easter celebration in a “spellbinding” way, Dr. Haffner says.

She was seated very near the front. Her table included Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the 40,000-plus Hispanic Evangelical Association. Rev. Haffner told him about the Religious Institute’s Safer Congregations movement — keeping children and vulnerable adults safe from abuse and harassment — and says, “There’s a good chance we will work together on it.”

Rev. Debra Haffner with Gene Robinson, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

Rev. Debra Haffner with Gene Robinson, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

Also at their table: Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the 1st female head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At the end of the breakfast, President Obama looked around. No one was scheduled to give the closing prayer, so he asked Rev. Gene Robinson — the retired openly gay Episcopal bishop — to give the benediction. He was as surprised as anyone, but spoke movingly, off the cuff.

“Starting with Joel and ending with Gene really shows the broad theological spectrum” of the day — and the administration — Rev. Haffner says.

After the breakfast, President Obama greeted the clergy. Rev. Haffner’s table was 1st — and she was the 1st member of her group that he spoke with.

Returning to Westport from Washington, Rev. Haffner reflected on the day — and all that came before it.

“My grandparents immigrated from Poland and Ukraine,” she says. “I don’t think they could ever have imagined this.”

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This h communities and society.

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