Bakersfield hosts 43rd prayer breakfast

Jan. 24—Herb Taylor, a local retired accountant, doesn't drink coffee. He doesn't need it, he says.

"God has blessed me with a battery that keeps going," Taylor said.

In lieu of caffeine, Taylor goes for morning walks. Along the way he plucks newspapers, usually 25 to 30 of them, from his neighbors' driveways and plops them at their doorstep.

"I started off small — a couple papers and whatnot," Taylor said. "But then the other neighbors said, 'Well, what about mine?'"

He's done this for the past 10 years, at least until Tuesday morning, when he decided to play hooky. "First time since I went on vacation in September," Taylor said.

Taylor got up early, but not for the paper. Instead, he raced downtown to the city's 43rd prayer breakfast, convened at the Mechanics Bank Arena Convention Center, on Tuesday at 6:40 a.m. sharp.

"We gather here today, welcoming the presence of promise," Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh said to applause from the estimated 1,000 people at the event, billed as the second-largest prayer breakfast in the country.

The annual event, with all the stripes and pageantry of a campaign banquet, has since 1975 attracted leaders and laymen to a morning pairing of hotcakes and the Holy Spirit.

Bakersfield native and retired Rev. Mark Lawrence flew in from South Carolina to lead attendees in prayer as this year's keynote speaker.

"This isn't a homecoming but it's a homecoming I want to talk about today," Lawrence said in his opening remarks. "Not my homecoming, but yours."

Speakers representing various parts of the community prayed for education, public safety, health care and the military. Despite the topics they mulled, speakers largely avoided partisan political oratory.

"The Bible teaches us that we were made in the image of God," said Dr. Edward Allen, a local doctor. "It doesn't matter your color, race, creed, sexual orientation — none of that stuff is important."

Some speakers still weaved their positions on such issues as education and public safety into their defense of religion's place in politics.

"We navigate through choppy and contentious political waters," said former Kern County judge Gary Friedman. "As your governmental servants, I believe we have received a directive from you as to how we should live our lives and serve our constituents and communities."

According to Garrett Ming, who heads the breakfast committee, the event spawned from a Bible study group that began meeting in the 1970s. The group still meets, and is open to anyone interested, but there are only a couple of the original members left.

"It's generational," Ming said. "I was asked to join by one of the original members. The group has turnover, you know. We have different people and with a group that's been around that long, it's a generational thing."

According to Ming, the hardest part is often finding the right keynote speaker.

"Usually when you find a keynote, they're busy and have a lot of other commitments," Ming said. "Our timing for the event is the third to fourth week of January, every year. So it's not like 'Well how about in February?' You either make it in this tight window or you don't."

He also made a point to address criticism of the ticket price, $25 for the buffet meal and $800 for a sponsor table. According to Ming, the breakfast barely breaks even once they consider the cost of the venue, catering and security.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why don't you bring in an overall sponsor, or a title sponsor?'" Ming said. "That's not what we're looking for; that's not the purpose of the event. We want people to leave here knowing that when they look to the left and the right, they know that there's believers throughout this city."

For future breakfasts, Ming pointed out the review card, which was found in the event's programs. The survey asked attendees to rate the breakfast and offer suggestions for next year, in the spirit of collaboration.

"What we try to do is be comprehensive so that when there's a prayer, everyone feels something and they have a chance to stand up," Ming said. "We can't always do that, so that's why we have the review card."