Tucked into a bohemian office space on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 2nd Street S.E., just past the Library of Congress and adjacent to quaint French eatery Le Bon Caf�, is the office of the Justice House of Prayer.
Three flights up, the carpet is hunter green and there a sprawling brown tapestry hangs from the wall with the word “communion” on it. There isn’t much furniture to speak of, unless you count a large set of keyboards in the corner, bongo drums and the torn-up or stained swivel chairs scattered about.
Instead, young, glowing twenty-somethings who have just come in from the swampy heat sit around in T-shirts and shorts singing, strumming on guitars, reading Scripture, playing keyboards or lying flat on their backs on the carpet in a state of prayer.
After 30 minutes of “chill time,” the teens gather for a special meeting where they are instructed to pray for “Hillary and Schumer and Brownback” as well as “Georgie, the senators, the judges and Israel.”
Grace Faulkner, 18, who attends Bible college at Forerunners School of Ministry, leads the teens in a closing prayer: “Jesus, we just love you and love who you are. We want you to see the reward of your suffering. Give us strength, God, and grace. We love you. Amen.”
The Lord might be impressed. The voices floating through the space are surprisingly melodic, even heavenly, like angels. The guitar playing is finessed, full of grace and rhythm.
Participants range in age from 18 to 30, but most are just out of college with no hunger for the daily grind. Instead, they devote their lives to the Lord, their attentions to praying for members of the Supreme Court and Congress to end abortion. They call themselves missionaries and for the foreseeable future have no plans to lead a “normal” lifestyle.
“We all moved here just to pray,” says Monique Marvin, 20, whom I met on a Pennsylvania Avenue street corner as she and her friends were finishing a spiritual song they made up using Bible verses, titled “It’s an Inside Outside Upside Down Kingdom.”
Marvin and the other missionaries moved to the Washington area to live on a 90-acre farm in Bowie, Md., with horses and cows. About 30 members live on the farm. (Another 30 live at another commune setting in Charlotte, N.C.) They are funded by anonymous supporters and, in some cases, their parents.
Think of it as commune living, minus purple sneakers and the all-night brainwashing that some cultist groups have practiced. They have no jobs to support themselves. “We live on faith,” Marvin says, with the carefree daze of a ’60s hippy.
The Justice House of Prayer sprang from one-day spiritual gatherings known as “The Call.” They were organized by Lou Engle, a 52-year-old minister from Chico, Calif. In September 2000, he gathered 400,000 church youth from all over the country to the nation’s capital for the first Call.
Since then there have been six Calls in places such as San Francisco, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City, Mo. The Justice House of Prayer began renting space on Capitol Hill last October and opened the 24-hour prayer center in January.
Eight adults live on the farm, one of whom is the group’s founder, Engle, who is held up on a saintlike pedestal. “Lou is like a spiritual father to me,” says Brian Kim, 22, a leader figure in the group who joined the movement in March 2001. “He’s very involved in our lives.”
Kim is not a religion pusher. He wears stubble on his chin and a laid-back expression on his face. In an untucked plaid button-down shirt, khaki shorts and Converse All-Star black sneakers, he could blend in easily with the post-college crowd that pervades the bar scene.
When asked what his parents think of what he’s doing, he looks weary and misunderstood. “Sometimes they think I’m a little strange,” he says of his parents, who live in his hometown of Palisades Park, N.J. Even so, they are Christians who send money to supplement his decision to live without a job. “They know I’m not some cuckoo,” he adds. “They trust me.”
Kim says he could get a job on Capitol Hill but has no desire to. “I live with the view that eternity is your reward,” he says. “I have eternal values in the forefront of [my] mind instead of monetary rewards.”
But sophisticated use of Scripture doesn’t stop the doubters: “Some people think I could be doing other stuff, like working for a senator,” he sighs, “like I’m wasting my time.”
Kim mops sweat off his forehead and looks around at his missionary friends, some of whom are swaying in front of the Supreme Court with red tape over their mouths — the red tape symbolizing unborn children who are aborted each year.
“There is no greater calling in life,” he says, with the certainty of a man twice his age.
But even Kim understands how odd that must sound.
“In the natural, it doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Living in community sounds strange, like Waco or something. It’s not like Waco. It’s not like we’re some weirdo group out there with weapons. We don’t allow weapons. To me there is no more glorious calling.”
The group’s primary purpose is abolishing abortion. “We believe lawmakers have hijacked it as a political issue when it really is a moral issue,” he says. “Society can’t continue to exist when it is systematically killing its offspring.”
With a presidency strongly supported by the evangelical right wing, it’s no surprise that a group such as the Justice House of Prayer feels at ease in George Bush’s Washington. “We’re welcomed in a way that we’ve never been welcomed before,” he says. “Bush has a worldview that’s closer to a Christian world view than another man might.”
Kim, who plans a lifelong career as a missionary, doesn’t discount the image of himself as a modern-day hippie. The model for Justice House of Prayer, he explains, is the civil-rights movement and his personal hero, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The daily schedule is intense. Every day except Sunday, the group stands before the Supreme Court from noon to 1 p.m. and from 3 to 5 p.m., with prayer sessions in between. Aside from daily prayer, hours of praying before the Supreme Court with red tape over their mouths and a weekly Sabbath, the group also takes trips to the beach.
Kim grew up in an evangelical Christian home and attended church regularly. His born-again experience, however, didn’t happen until high school, when he was smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and hanging out with girls — “Let’s just say girls, whatever that means,” he says, a little embarrassed. He now insists on celibacy and believes sex is reserved for marriage.
“Something had to change,” he says. “I was living a hedonistic way, living life for myself, really. Drinking, drugs and girls and all that stuff, just thinking of myself and how I could get ahead.”
And then, the inexplicable change: “I was gripped by the love of God for my own life. Since then, I’ve been ruined. I mean, in a good way.”
At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., he says, he lived a “godlier life,” and didn’t feel left out of the drinking, partying and sex that went on.
In flip-flops and a “Living the good life” T-shirt, Chris DiGiovanna, 24, is the designated spokesman of the day for members standing in front of the high court with their mouths taped shut. By age 14, he says, he was doing “stupid things” like drinking and drugs and destroying relationships. At 18, he walked into his kitchen and began to cry. “I knew I needed God,” he says.
DiGiovanna skipped college and earned his real-estate license but has never used it. Instead, he got involved with a youth church mission in Chico, Calif., where he met the group’s founder, Engle.
Adam Thomas, 22, is a goofy presence in the Justice House of Prayer. Dressed in a blue-and-white-pinstriped, button-down shirt matched with rolled-up camouflage pants, he stares out of tortoise-shell glasses and wants to know what you think of his group.
Thomas has two years of college left but has no idea when or if he’ll finish. He plans to take online classes with Liberty University. “It’s all on hold now because I’d rather be doing this,” he says. Previous jobs have included waiting tables and caddying for the Professional Golf Association.
Having grown up an evangelical Christian, Thomas takes his religion seriously. He recalls a pivotal experience from a trip to Mexico when he was 12 in which he came upon a disabled child. Thomas prayed for the child, and three hours later the child walked.
Thomas says he played a spiritual part in healing the child: “I was obedient to God’s voice, and God supernaturally came down and cured him.”
Experiences such as these are common in the group.
At the Bowie farm, there is a dorm for the girls and a separate five-car garage converted into a dorm for the boys. “It’s not glorious or anything,” says Kim. “It’s community living.”
He quickly adds: “It’s not a commune. People come and go as they wish.”
Each morning, the group worships together for an hour and a half in a meeting room the members call “the Oval Office” because of its shape.
The rules inside the Justice House of Prayer sound like something out of a boarding-school handbook: No drinking. No drugs. No girls. No hanging out with members of the opposite sex alone, engaged or in the courtship process. Lights out at midnight. And swearing is frowned upon.
“Hard to believe, huh?” Kim asks. “We’re counterculture in that sense. I deny myself the legitimate and illegitimate pleasures of this world for the extreme pleasure of knowing God.”
He concedes, “It’s not necessarily an easy lifestyle, but it’s a lifestyle, I guess, that I’ve chosen.”