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COLUMN ONE

Showing Faith in Discretion

The Fellowship, which sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast, quietly effects political change. It acts with the blessing of many in power.

September 27, 2002|LISA GETTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARLINGTON, Va. — 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

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