Virginia lawmakers pray for civility ahead of 2019 General Assembly session

RICHMOND, Va. -- As legislators, faith leaders, and others ate their scrambled eggs and fresh fruit cups, two slideshow screens at the front of the room rotated Bible verses speaking to the theme of the 53rd annual General Assembly Prayer Breakfast: civility and reconciliation.

Politicians who packed the ballroom at the Greater Richmond Convention Center reflected on familiar Bible verses such as Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Republicans and Democrats alike sat next to one another Wednesday morning, amicably asking about family members and the past holiday season while sipping orange juice or coffee. There was little hint of the potential political drama or partisanship of the impending legislative session.

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly acted as master of ceremonies for the event. Bringing the room to attention with a chime of her glass, she blessed the food — "in Jesus’ name we pray" — and then introduced Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Taking the stage, Northam emphasized the importance of unity among state legislators, working toward the common goal of the good of the commonwealth.

"We are a state that supports our veterans, embraces diversity and inclusion, and attracts visitors from all over the world," Northam said, addressing the sea of gray, navy and black business suits. "I spent my career as a child neurologist. Over the years, I saw thousands of patients and their families and never once did they ask me if I was a Republican or a Democrat, nor did I ask them. All they wanted was for me to help them."

As inspiration for his work as both a doctor and politician, Northam shared his favorite scripture, Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

"I believe it is our duty as elected officials to ... help the least of our brothers. It is our duty to help the Virginians who need it the most," Northam said, citing the expansion of Medicaid as an example of that doctrine. Referencing his "tremendous friends" on both sides of the aisle, Northam ended with a blessing for the room and the commonwealth.

Three prayers followed: for children and families, led by first lady Pamela Northam; for public safety and military officials, led by Attorney General Mark Herring; and for those in need, led by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, shared a moment in his life when he personally experienced the Golden Rule, or Muslim Hadith: "None of you truly believes until he wishes for others what he wishes for himself."

When attempting to pass his first bill on the House floor years ago, Rasoul said he received a note from Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, with a tip on how to revive his dying legislation.

"I believe we can both be very passionate about what we believe in and at the same time pass notes to each other on the House floor," Rasoul said.

The two keynote speakers both held positions in the White House for faith-based initiatives. Jedd Medefind worked under President George W. Bush, and Michael Wear under President Barack Obama. The two men delivered thoughtful speeches about the importance of civility in the world and the power of attentiveness.

As the breakfast broke up at 10 a.m., the room quickly emptied out. Legislators headed to Capitol Square for the session's first day, with a wish and a prayer or two.

By Evie King/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.

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