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Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast begins with religious protests

Some attendees approached protesters to say “thank you.”

CREDIT: Kate Bahn
CREDIT: Kate Bahn

President Donald Trump spoke before a bevy of faith leaders on Thursday morning as part of the National Prayer Breakfast, a traditional gathering that offers presidents a rare opportunity to opine on religion and its role in American society.

But while many theologically conservative attendees at the Washington Hilton applauded the president’s remarks, a group of roughly 300 faith-based demonstrators outside the hotel lifted up a very different message: prayerful resistance to Trump’s policies.

“Pray for refugees—pray for the end of the Muslim ban,” participants told attendees as they passed. Others sang hymns such as “We shall overcome” and waved signs in opposition to Trump’s recent slate of executive orders, such as “We welcome refugees,” “Pro-life; Pro-refugee,” and “More love, less fear.”

Several of the demonstrators rooted their message in scripture.

“Jesus makes it very clear that whatever we do to the least of these we do to him—that includes welcoming the stranger,” said Rev. Donna Sokol, a protester and pastor at Mt. Vernon Place, United Methodist Church. “When it comes to immigration and refugees, it’s a matter of faith. We are called to be compassionate, merciful, and just-filled.”

“When it comes to immigration and refugees, it’s a matter of faith. We are called to be compassionate, merciful, and just-filled.”

Another protester, Rev. Will Green of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., echoed Sokol’s call to care for others, but also noted his own personal experience with Trump’s policies.

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“My faith compels me to stand with those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “But I also went [to the protest] because I have friends and family who are directly impacted by what I would called the oppressive executive orders this president has issued.”

The demonstration was organized by a coalition of faith organizations, including Church World Service, Sojourners, and Faith in Public Life, among others. They and other faith-based groups are playing an increasingly visible role in the anti-Trump movement: since the businessman won the election last November, a ever-growing number of religious Americans and institutions have publicly rejected his cabinet nominees, plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Muslim ban, and his overall policy agenda.

The prayer breakfast protest was bolstered by a separate petition published Thursday morning denouncing what signers called Trump’s “failure to embrace inclusion and compassion.” The letter, which is signed by more than 800 Christian leaders, does not name specific policies, but makes thinly veiled condemnations of the president’s executive orders and views on climate change.

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“We pray that you remember refugees and immigrants have sacred worth in God’s eyes,” it reads. “We pray that you protect the gift of Creation — air, oceans, rivers and climate that give and sustain life. We pray that you recognize affordable health care is a human right, not a privilege.”

The letter also appears to decry Trump’s devoted cadre of Prosperity Gospel preachers, who believe that God will give wealth to those who believe hard enough—and, often, those who donate to specific faith leaders: “The Gospel is not about prosperity, but Good News for the poor,” it reads.

The leaders closed with a warning that the groundswell of progressive, faith-based resistance to his polices is likely to continue.

“We stand ready to help you build bridges and knock down walls of indifference and exclusion,” it reads. “If you continue to choose the path of division and fear, we will not hesitate to defend those whom Christ put at the center of the Gospel.”

Some of the more prominent signers include Sister Donna Markham, President & CEO of Catholic Charities USA; Rev. William Barber II, President of Repairers of the Breach and organizer of the Moral Mondays movement; Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, former President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; Jim Wallis, President & Founder of Sojourners; Rev. John L. McCullough, President and CEO of Church World Service; and Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne of Red Letter Christians.

Video of the protest hinted that persuading Trump’s supporters will be a steep climb, even for faith leaders. In one clip, a man entering the prayer breakfast paused after heaing one of the protesters ask for an end to the Muslim ban.

“It’s only three months, no big deal,” the man said, turning to leave.

Undaunted, the demonstrator called after him: “If you were a refugee, it’d be a big deal!”

But progressive people of faith are still finding uncommon allies among theological conservatives. Rev. Sokol said that others entering the hotel appeared to agree with them, and that their message of inclusion was not lost on all of those who prayed with Trump this morning.

“Several people coming inside stopped and said ‘thank you,’” she said.