Reaching Out to the Hill’s Many Faiths

Numerous Outlets for Religious Expression Offered

Posted June 8, 2007 at 6:11pm

On a recent Friday afternoon, dozens of Muslims met in the basement of the Capitol to hear a short sermon from a local imam, and then, facing in the direction of Mecca, prostrated themselves in prayer. About an hour later that same day, a handful of Jews gathered in a House Foreign Affairs Committee room to pore over passages from the Torah. The following Monday, a half-dozen evangelicals attended a Christian world view seminar in another room just down the hall from where the Muslims had met.

And that’s as it should be, asserted Suhail Khan, a former aide to then-Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) who helped start Muslim Friday prayers on Capitol Hill about a decade ago.

“The Capitol,” Khan said, “is a symbol of all Americans’ ability to express themselves — both politically and religiously.”

While the days when Congressional Chaplains conducted Sunday services on the House floor are long gone, when it comes to religious expressions, Capitol Hill is rife with opportunities for the faithful to express themselves and find guidance.

Indeed, the spiritual outreach available to staffers on the Hill operates on a number of different levels — from the work of the official House and Senate Chaplains to the private religious groups that come onto the Hill to lead Bible studies and reflection groups to the staff-led associations for Jews and Muslims.

“For people who are religious and need that and want it, they’ll find it,” Shelley Rood, an aide to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and president of the Congressional Jewish Staff Association, said of religious outreach on the Hill. “They don’t have to look very hard. It’s there.”

The Chaplains
Although the Chaplains are probably best known for opening each chamber in prayer, much of their work goes on behind the scenes.

The principal offering is Bible studies. Senate Chaplain Barry Black conducts two lunch studies for staff each week — Tuesdays at noon at Postal Square and Fridays at noon on the first floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The current Senate series is “Living Responsibly Without Regret.”

The House studies meet less regularly. Daniel Coughlin, the first Catholic priest to serve as House Chaplain, has offered Scripture reflection groups during the Advent and Lenten seasons, for instance, and is considering launching a contemplative prayer group this summer. (The House Chaplain’s Web site also keeps listings of various religious study groups, services, meetings and other religious-themed happenings — including art exhibits. And the office occasionally sends out e-mails about religious events.)

Black runs a 10-week spiritual mentoring program, offering staffers a chance to get to know the Chaplain better.

“People would come up to me after Bible study and say, ‘I wish I had more time to talk with you.’ There was a hunger for a new level of spiritual intimacy,” Black said. “Jesus had 12 disciples, but there was a level of intimacy he had with James, John and Peter that he did not have with the other nine.” Four classes of 10 have graduated from the program.

Along with his doctorate in ministry, Black, who is both the first Seventh-day Adventist and African-American to hold the Senate Chaplain post, has a Ph.D. in psychology, which he said allows him to connect with non-Christians and non-religious people, too.

“Most of the people who come to see me talk not just about the theological but also the psychological background,” he said.

Outside Operations
While an exhaustive list of outside religious groups operating on Capitol Hill does not appear to exist, an informal survey found the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths to be active on the Hill.

Indeed, the House Chaplain’s office was not aware of any ongoing Hill presence for those affiliated with other religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, though Karen Bronson, who serves as the office’s liaison to staffers, said that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. “The outside groups that may come in don’t necessarily call us,” she said. “Some of them come in and try stuff for a little while and are gone again.”

Until recently, one of the more active Christian groups with a consistent presence was the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship, which offered small-group studies and monthly “Politics and Principle” luncheons at which Christian Members would share their religious journeys. The CCS closed earlier this spring as part of Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries but has since reopened as part of Evangelism Explosion International, another ministry founded by Kennedy. The center is in the process of re-implementing a number of the programs it once offered though with fewer staff and resources, said its executive director, George Roller, who at the moment is the group’s only paid staffer.

Created in 1995, the CCS ran single-sex Bible studies and book discussions for interns and staff. Hunter Hangar, a Capitol Hill liaison for the center up until its closing, said he also would normally have multiple one-on-one lunch or coffee meetings with male staff each day.

“A lot of counseling would go on,” Hangar said, “because you’d have guys in challenging situations — in the process of getting fired or breaking off wedding engagements.”

The center also gave an annual Distinguished Christian Statesman Award, bestowing this year’s award on Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) days after the CCS officially closed.

A group similar to the CCS is the Christian Embassy, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ that holds Bible studies and guest speaker events on the Hill.

There’s also Faith & Law, an informal all-volunteer Christian operation. Run by current and former Hill staffers, Faith & Law focuses more on engaging culture from a Christian perspective than on proselytizing. It is explicitly “not an evangelistic ministry,” according to its Web site.

“We are a discipleship organization,” said Bill Wichterman, a Faith & Law board member who worked on the Hill until recently and has been involved with the group since he was a staff assistant in 1987.

“Our mission is to help explore a Christian world view. If someone came in and said, ‘I want to explore a Christian world view but I don’t want to become a Christian,’ we’d say, ‘Great, come on in.’ We’d welcome them.”

Faith & Law hosts speakers (seven so far this year) on issues that have ranged from global warming to C.S. Lewis to the judicial nomination process. It also has small groups that read and discuss books or articles (“Some of them read something from Rolling Stone recently,” Wichterman noted).

The largest outside Jewish group operating on Capitol Hill is the Capitol Jewish Forum, sponsored by the orthodox American Friends of Lubavitch, which aims to be a resource “for [Jewish] staffers who need anything Jewish that don’t belong to a congregation already,” said its head, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who estimated that the group had about 500 to 600 members. Among its popular activities are lunch-hour study sessions and an annual Hanukkah Party that draws hundreds.

And since 1998, when a small group of Muslim staffers first received permission from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) office, Friday prayers, known as Jumuah, have been held in the basement of the Capitol. Today, about four dozen faithful, including Hill staffers, federal workers and even Congress’ sole Muslim Member, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), gather there weekly.

There also is outreach for those who may not feel comfortable identifying with a particular religion. The ecumenical Faith & Politics Institute, led by Father Clete Kiley, offers weekly reflection groups for staff that can include classical music and poetry readings. “We really try to aim at contemplative living,” Kiley said.

Other religious-oriented groups have emerged as official staff organizations.

For the 27-member Congressional Muslim Staff Association, which formed in the fall of 2005 and is open to Muslim Hill aides, education and combating stereotypes have been key to many of the programs it has sponsored, said its president, Jameel Aalim-Johnson, pointing to events such as a discussion of a documentary on the prophet Muhammad. This summer for the first time the association also will organize programs for Muslim Hill interns, said Aalim-Johnson, chief of staff for Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).

Meanwhile, the Congressional Jewish Staff Association, whose e-mail list numbers about 200, tries to combine a mixture of social, service and religious programming that has included visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during Purim and dropping in for services at various synagogues in town, Rood said. A small group of members recently started a Torah study led by a rotating rabbi that meets Fridays over the lunch hour.

Balancing Act
When it comes to religious plurality, Coughlin said that while he, like nearly all previous Chaplains, is Christian, “that doesn’t mean that I only speak to Christians, am only here for Christians.” He notes, for instance, that he attended a Ramadan Iftar reception put on by the Muslim Staff Association in September and that his office hosted an event on Shavuot and Pentecost along with the Senate Chaplain’s office and a Navy rabbi.

“If anything we try to be hospitable … to be supportive of those who practice their faith,” Coughlin said. And while Coughlin said he hasn’t encountered significant opposition from nonreligious people on the Hill, he notes there have been legal efforts to do away with both the House and Senate Chaplains’ offices. In 2004, for instance, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit to eliminate the offices filed by atheist Michael Newdow, who gained nationwide fame when he tried to have the words “under God” struck from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Black said he has brought in rabbis and imams for observances of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We don’t talk of a Judeo-Christian heritage for nothing,” Black said. “There is a tremendous Judeo-Christian and Islamic connection.”

Those affiliated with religious groups said that accessing Congress to put on their programs, which requires a Member to sponsor their group for a room, has not been a problem.

And most seem pleased with the way religion is presented and accommodated on the Hill.

Zahava Goldman, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) who is active with Jewish issues, said the Capitol Hill culture is very sensitive to religious diversity. “Once I remember asking the [Rayburn] cafeteria to move the chicken salad away from the tuna salad because I didn’t eat non-kosher meat,” she recalled. “They were like, ‘OK, that seems totally reasonable.’”

Muslims said that any undercurrent of prejudice against their faith is on an individual, not institutional, level.

“You always have … ‘Dear Colleague’ letters, and forums that are hosted by Members of Congress where speakers say very insensitive or troubling things [about Islam] particularly after 9/11,” said Khan, who now works for the Federal Highway Administration. But Khan added that high-profile occurrences — such as when then-Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) said the proximity of a Muslim group’s headquarters to his Capitol Hill house was in part to blame for his divorce, or when then-Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) said those “with a diaper” on their heads and “a fanbelt wrapped around the diaper” should be “pulled over and checked” — were the exception.

Ultimately, it’s not so much prejudice toward any particular religion, but a combination of apathy and hectic Hill schedules that are the biggest hurdles for those seeking to promote faith among Capitol staff, religious leaders said.

“Most people who work with religion here, what they run into more than anything else is indifference,” Coughlin said. “Indifference is the biggest enemy.”

“All you need is one big bill to land on the floor and the attendance can drop,” Shemtov said. “You have to ride that roller coaster of attendance. … People are working so hard and doing so much they just don’t have time for themselves physically let alone spiritually.”

One strength of the outreach groups is that they come to staffers, rather than vice versa. Black’s Bible studies always include free lunch. The CCS liaisons have treated staff to meals or coffee.

And, they hope, provide a needed ministry.

“We were looking for people who either didn’t have a church home or who were unable to have a fair amount of fellowship with their church because of their busy Capitol Hill schedule,” the CCS’ Hangar said.

While most religious groups who do work on the Hill seem content with their access and treatment, the Muslim Staff Association’s Aalim-Johnson said he would like to see a room set aside in the Capitol for interfaith worship, which would, among other things, allow Muslims a private place to complete their mandatory five prayers per day — a task that can be difficult for those without a private office. Given the influx of summer interns, Aalim-Johnson would also like a bigger room for Friday prayers, though he’s aware of the space constraints on Capitol Hill.

Looking ahead, Black indicated that changes in his office would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Asking if he foresees major changes, Black said, is “kind of like asking a third baseman how he is going to play third base. It depends on the balls being hit to you. Maybe someone is bunting, or someone is trying to steal third base. We’ll continue to react to the environment, continue to do listening and learn where there is a spiritual need.”