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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

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.

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