This year’s Missouri Governor’s Prayer Breakfast did not have the nationally known keynote speaker as originally planned. Department Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson had been scheduled to address the gathering Thursday morning. Carson was unable to attend due to the partial government shutdown that’s impacting the agency he heads.
Organizers bill the annual proceedings as an interfaith gathering for leaders and citizens with the purpose of seeking “God’s guidance for our political leaders as they begin the legislative session”.
The event is bipartisan in nature, and light in its non-denominational Christian message. The program’s theme Thursday morning at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City was “God is in Control”.
Republican Governor Parson spoke for roughly 14 minutes before introducing St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts as this year’s Prayer Breakfast Keynote Speaker.
Keeping with the event’s theme, Parson noted that people he encounters on a regular basis pray for him.
He also mentioned that during his days as a sheriff in southwest Missouri, his pastor, Billy Russell of the First Baptist Church of Bolivar, counseled his staff through faith after one of his officers was killed in the line of duty. Parson was sheriff of Polk County from 1992 until 2004.
Parson stated that he struggled to keep his office and himself focused on the task of governing and was given guidance by attending a church service recently in Jefferson City where the pastor urged the congregation to avoid distraction and focus on their faith.
The governor referred several times to the overhead banner behind the stage which reiterated the event’s theme, “God is in Control”. He drew applause and laughter when he brought the partial government shutdown into his address. “I wish a lot of the federal government was here this morning,” said Parson. “They could look at that banner behind me. Because regardless of what they are doing they are not in control! Trust me. Trust me. They are not.”
He returned to the phrase “God is in Control” when recalling his experiences helping with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and going through open heart surgery.
Parson said that at the beginning of the legislative session, lawmakers should be good Samaritans and be driven by faith. “Whatever your titles are, at the end of the day, we are no more or no less than public servants,” Parson said. “Public servants is all we are.”
The governor was followed by Sheriff Betts, with whom he’s familiar with.
Parson signed a bill last June with Betts present that was sponsored by Democratic State Senator Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis. The measure broadened the law enforcement capabilities of deputies in the city of St. Louis. Previously, they were only charged with handling courtroom security, delivering summons and transporting prisoners.
The new law identifies St. Louis deputies as law enforcement officers and makes them eligible for training and licensing through the state’s peace officer program.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that Betts said the new law would put the St. Louis Sheriff’s Department “on par with everyone else in the country.”
In his address Thursday morning, Betts said he was “perplexed” that he was speaking after the governor who he thought was the real keynote speaker. He said that his pastor, Reverend Dr. Freddie Clark of Shalom Church in St. Louis, would never let allows other to speak after his sermons.
The sheriff noted that he and the governor had much in common in that they both had beautiful and intelligent wives, although he made an off the cuff comment that could be interpreted as a disparaging remark toward transgender people. “(Governor) you and I are both men, yeah, you can’t take that for granted these days,” said Betts. “I don’t know where you all hang out, but you’ve got to be careful.”
Betts’ speech otherwise was characteristic of a skilled preacher speaking to a congregation and was playful, at one point asking for audience participation. “Surely,” Betts repeated several times, as attendees repeated the phrase. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
He also identified a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns, to the broad concerns of all humanity,” said Betts. He stressed that Missourians should be inclusive of people from all walks of life. “You must press to serve all, the rich, the poor, the black, the white, the Democrat, the Republican,” Betts said. “We must press to serve all of this great state.”
The sheriff finished by offering three things people of faith should do: pray, read the bible and worship.
Featuring Bettis as the keynote speaker is a departure from previous Prayer Breakfast’s when clergy members have spoken.
Former Republican Governor Eric Greitens hosted one Prayer Breakfast before resigning from office in 2018.
Greitens’ featured speaker was the Reverend John Lindell heads the James River Church in Springfield, which is affiliated with the Assembly of God. His Sunday congregations top 15,000 on a regular basis.
Lindell was a strong proponent of repealing the city’s discrimination laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, which voters rescinded by a narrow margin in 2015.
Outgoing Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s featured speaker in January of 2017 was Pastor Randy Gariss of Joplin, who’s a nationally known voice on justice.
During Thursday’s gathering, four members of Missouri’s legislative leadership read scripture passages. They included new Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, incoming Republican House Speaker Elijah Haahr, newly elected Republican Senate Floor Leader Caleb Rowden and Democratic Assistant Minority Floor Leader Kiki Curls.
Republican Senator Wayne Wallingford of Cape Girardeau led the gathering in the pledge of allegiance while Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft sang the national anthem. A prayer was led by Pastor Russell.
The Missouri Governor’s Prayer Breakfast was established in the 1950s as an extension of the National Prayer Breakfast.
Proceeds from this year’s breakfast help to subsidize the Governor’s Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values, which brings together Missouri college juniors for a three-day study of faith and leadership. Participants explore the role faith has played in the lives of business executives, sports figures and government officials.
Missouri Governor John Ashcroft joined several other national politicians to establish the first annual National Student Leadership Forum. The national event served as the catalyst for similar events held in 28 states.
Jefferson City businessman Clyde Lear has organized the Governor’s Student Leadership Forum since its inception. Lear was a founding partner in the Learfield company, which owns and operates Missourinet.