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Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT/Newscom

All in the family

Behind the scandal-tainted C Street house is an organization big on protecting its own and small on church ties and theology

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-The national press for the past two months has roasted "hypocritical" Christians who live in or meet in a ministry-owned house on C Street two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Nevada Sen. John Ensign and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, both talked about this spring as potential GOP presidential candidates in 2012, have acknowledged adulterous relationships. Last month a lawsuit in Jackson, Miss., served notice that former Rep. Chip Pickering, also a Republican, may have carried on in the C Street house an illicit affair with a former college love interest (see "Alienation of affection").

Sustained media attention has focused on whether the C Street house conclaves had contributed to or condoned the breaking of marital vows: Just what was in the water at C Street to prompt the three-all GOP political and social conservatives who a decade ago called for former President Bill Clinton's resignation-to fall into similar scandals of their own?

But adultery is not new in Congress or in the church, and aside from three men shattering their families' lives, a larger story emerged of the group behind the C Street row house: a 60-year-old, globally reaching organization that has muddy theology and a disdain for the established church.

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The C Street house is one of many properties in the greater Washington area owned by the Fellowship Foundation, which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Bible studies, social gatherings, and private retreats, and funds international development.

"Associates" (employees) of the Fellowship say its mission is to show the love of Jesus to the world's leaders. But it has no website to publicize that work, and those affiliated are extremely reluctant-if not prohibited, say some-to talk about it.

Former U.S. Senate chaplain Richard Halverson was one of the first to join the Fellowship under founder Abraham Vereide in the 1950s. Halverson, before joining the organization, had prayer groups of his own with movie stars in Hollywood.

Vereide, looking for someone to partner with in a similar mission in Washington, chose Halverson. Privacy became a trademark of the Fellowship's prayer groups, something that grew into an obsessive culture of secrecy in the organization itself, Halverson's son Chris told WORLD. "If you talked about it, you would destroy that fellowship," he said.

Washingtonians who know about it think of C Street as a kind of "Christian frat house," according to Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has been close with members of the Fellowship for over 20 years. But Cromartie also noted, "It is a virtue to try to be anonymous in a town where self-promotion is so often the modus operandi of many who come to work among the powerful."

At the center of the group is Doug Coe, who joined in 1959 at the age of 30 after working with The Navigators, and a decade later was heading the organization. Now 80, those who know him describe him as warm and charismatic with a dominating personality. He has no obvious successor.

Coe declined to be interviewed by WORLD for this article.

House members Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Heath Shuler, D-N.C., are reportedly current C Street residents. Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; and John Ensign, R-Nev. reportedly also live there. All have been repeatedly contacted by WORLD in the wake of the scandals and have declined personally or through spokespersons to be interviewed on the record about the group.

Others who regularly attend C Street house gatherings or other Fellowship studies reportedly include Reps. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and Joe Pitts, R-Pa.; along with Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. They too were contacted by WORLD. Moran, Nelson, and Pryor did not return repeated phone calls; others refused to speak on the record about C Street house activities and the Fellowship.

"I've often said that if they would simply get a website, that would answer a lot of questions," said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who spent three years studying the Fellowship. "Since so little is known about it, that tends to inspire conspiracy theories. They don't respond to criticisms, so people think the worst."

Another lawmaker with long ties to the group, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, told WORLD he wanted to talk about the group because he is tired of the conspiracy theories.

Inhofe, 74, attends a weekly Fellowship study that does not meet at C Street: "We talk about our families, we talk about our backgrounds, we talk about our faith. We get together and support each other and pray together. There is nothing new and sinister about this."

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