Believers from many faiths filled a 600-seat Monona Terrace ballroom Monday for an inauguration-related prayer breakfast that stressed shared humanity over political differences.
The event honoring new Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch tapped leaders from all major religions — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism — for brief prayers.
Some attendees had backed Walker, others not.
“It was a little bit of a struggle for me to be here,” said Carolyn Rumph of Madison, a member of the Mount Zion Baptist Church choir, one of two choirs to perform. “But I felt our mission is to sing praises to God. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or a member of the tea party — it doesn’t matter this morning.”
The prayer breakfast preceded Walker’s official swearing-in. It used no taxpayer money, said Walker spokeswoman Jill Bader. Attendees paid $17.
Walker, a Baptist preacher’s son, spoke briefly, saying to big applause, “I’m proud to say I’m a born-again Christian.” He said he enjoyed getting to know leaders of many faiths during his years as Milwaukee County executive.
“I hope you appreciate the fact that it is not freedom from religion, it is freedom from a state religion that we celebrate,” he said. “The great creator, no matter who you worship, is the one from which our freedoms are derived, not the government.”
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Both Walker and Kleefisch worship at non-denominational, evangelical churches — he at Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, she at Crosspoint Community Church in Oconomowoc.
“This was so refreshing, so encouraging,” attendee Connie Mullins of Marshfield said of Walker’s religious openness.
First lady Tonette Walker used the event to spotlight Milwaukee’s Teen Challenge, a Christian-based substance abuse recovery program that she said will be one of her main initiatives. Its 43-member choir was the other group to sing.
The choir from Mount Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly black church on Madison’s South Side, was noticeably smaller than usual — about half its typical size of 30. Director Leotha Stanley said work obligations, not political differences, kept the rest away.
His wife, Assistant Director Tamera Stanley, said choir members carefully weighed whether to accept the Walker administration’s invitation. Many of the choir’s members, including herself, did not vote for him, and there was some concern that the choir’s participation would be viewed as a political endorsement.
In the end, members decided they wanted to build bridges, not contribute to partisanship. “Prayer knows no boundaries,” she said.