Cover Story

All in the family

"All in the family" Continued...

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

Inhofe insists the groups are private-not secretive: "We talk about things we don't talk about in public."

Other regulars say associates reprimand them for using the term "the Fellowship," and tell them to call the group "the Family."

In fact, said Halverson, "they used to call themselves the Christian mafia-and they would laugh. Meaning one family is in strong power and then other families around that family have some power. . . . I would have been considered one of the families that have power."

In the early days, the core families included Vereide, the Coes, and the Halversons. Coe "became the godfather . . . but for good, not for bad," said Halverson.

Today members emphasize that there is no overriding organization, only brothers and sisters with the Holy Spirit guiding them. Others say the nonprofit organization is like a starfish, with no head, where an arm can be cut off, but another sprouts in its place. The "starfish" principle places emphasis on decentralization, but according to current tax documents, the organization does have a board of directors and had $19 million in revenue in 2007 (see sidebar below).

Eric Fellman, a Fellowship employee for 11 years who remains on the board, said a budget committee (on which he serves) reviews all the organization's funding activities.

When Fellman first joined the organization in 1997, he said Coe had discretion over about $2 million of a $10 million budget. Now he said each "relationship building" project of the Fellowship has a "core" group that oversees it without Coe's direct supervision. But Coe's blessing is vital to some ministry opportunities-he has access to donors, and sometimes people come to him seeking funds for, say, a relationship-building trip to India with lawmakers.

"He would think about it and pray about it, and he might say no," said Fellman. "They might get upset about it. He may have made a mistake. [But] he made that judgment out of his prayer and relationship with the Lord."

In addition to the house on C Street and other properties, relationship building takes place at the Cedars, the organization's $7.8 million headquarters. A mansion tucked away in Arlington, Va., it once belonged to U.S. statesman and founding father George Mason.

Silver tea sets, pink Italian marble, and overstuffed divans set the scene for elite gatherings. A banquet table serves weekly ambassadorial lunches, and another smaller sitting room allows for private, intimate meetings. Outside are tennis courts under tall oaks and a swimming pool that blends smoothly into the landscape.

Fellowship associates call the Cedars "a house for the poor," by which they mean a place where political leaders can meet on behalf of the poor.

A sunlight-filled salon has words painted on the border: "Alpha, Omega . . . Christ in you." The word "Christ" is striking because members of the Fellowship usually only talk about "Jesus"-someone with whom Muslims, Hindus, and anyone else can be comfortable.

Well-knowns ranging from Michael Jackson to Hillary Clinton have escaped to the Cedars for refuge. Couples rotate as hosts at the mansion for two-week stints and welcome any visitors as "part of the Family."

Young women who live at a boarding house called Potomac Point down the street work dusting shelves, scrubbing dishes, and making meals at the Cedars. Young men who live down the street at a separate house called Ivanwald tend the grounds carrying leaf blowers. The mansion's carriage house holds administrative offices.

The Fellowship also owns a house in the high-crime northeast Washington neighborhood of Trinidad, where students come for afterschool programs that sometimes include a field trip out to swim at the Cedars. The group began Jonathan House, a home for young Christian men named after Coe's deceased son and now operated by Washington Community Fellowship. And in Annapolis it owns homes for young people to live in and receive mentoring under the Wilberforce Foundation.

The house on C Street is listed under the ownership of the Fellowship's C Street Center, an IRS-registered church, though the house doesn't fit the traditional definition of a church. Residents pay about $950 in rent, and the lawmakers who live there aren't performing sacraments or affirming any sort of church creed or authority. That, critics say, is part of the problem. Fellman said the house was zoned as a church when the Fellowship purchased it, and there was "something like a 12-year wait" to change the zoning designation because it is a historic property.

But the lack of church discipline and structure is "a serious missing element in this whole thing, both in the lives of the individuals involved, and in the Fellowship organization as a whole," said Rob Schenck, who heads D.C.-based Faith & Action and hosts a Bible study with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The church offers unique structures for accountability, said Schenck, "because that's what it's designed to do." Though lawmakers may spend weekdays in Washington and fly home to their districts to attend to constituents and see their families, Schenck contends that the pace is not an insurmountable obstacle to maintaining church relationships.


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