In 2002, when Jeff Sharlet stepped into the Ivanwald house at the age of 30, he didn't know he was entering into the story that would define decades of his life. Inside the two-story colonial house in Arlington, VA, Sharlet was surrounded by young men devoted to Jesus — but their version of Christianity is not one Sharlet, a religion writer, had ever encountered before. As members of the Fellowship, these young men prayed constantly and tended to people they believe God had "chosen" to lead, like politicians.
Initially, Sharlet never intended to go "undercover" and investigate the Fellowship's deep ties to the American government. But after encountering the Fellowship's vast influence, Sharlet knew this was the story he had to tell. The resulting five-episode Netflix documentary series, The Family, is the eye-opening story that Sharlet risked his life to tell. Sharlet called it “the darkest expression of religious life that I’ve found in 20 years.” Here's what you need to know.
What is the Fellowship?
The Fellowship is a secretive Christian group with ties to a vast network of world leaders, clergy, business people, and politicians.
The Fellowship was first founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant and travelling preacher. In April 1935, Vereide planned the first "prayer breakfast," where 19 business and civic leaders in Washington state gathered to pray – and mingle. "They wanted to give Jesus a vessel, and so they asked God to raise up a leader," Sharlet writes in his 2003 Harpers article. Arthur Langlie, a city councilman in the group, volunteered to be a leader; his Fellowship friends (and their money) helped elect him mayor of Seattle and then governor.
With that, Vereide struck the blend of civic interests and religion that would define the Fellowship's activity forever. More and more prayer breakfast groups spread around the country.
In the years since, the shadowy organization has assumed many names, including the Family, the National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, the National Leadership Council, Fellowship House, the Fellowship Foundation, the National Fellowship Council, and the International Foundation. All of these names, Sharlet writes in Harpers, are to obscure the Family and its activities. When Vereide died in 1966, he instructed to “submerge the institutional image of [the Family].”
So the Fellowship stopped recruiting members publicly, but its influence grew. "The Fellowship's reach into governments around the world is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp," says David Kuo, who worked for George W. Bush. That's largely thanks to Douglas Coe, who took over after Vereide.
Before Coe died in 2017, he helped turn the Family into the invisible star-making machine it is. He had personal connections to many presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to the Bill Clinton. In 2001, he helped kick off a peace deal between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda by inviting the warring presidents to his home.
Finally, Coe and the Family also bought a house called C-Street where U.S. Congressmen live (and may continue to live).
Though he was named one of the most influential Evangelicals in America by Time Magazine in 2005, Coe maintained secrecy in interviews. He didn't want to compromise the integrity of his worldwide "family of friends." As Coe says in the documentary, "The more invisible you can make your organisation, the more influence it will have."
But Coe also spearheaded the only visible part of his organisation: The National Prayer Breakfast.
What is the National Prayer Breakfast?
The National Prayer Breakfast began in 1953. Since then, world leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Donald Trump, or Bono and Mother Theresa, have spoken at the event, held on the first Thursday of February. Now, it's a three-day extravaganza with 4,000 world leaders and business leaders mingling under the auspices of "prayer."
The event is invitation-only. However, foreign lobbyists are still able to attend and exert influence. During the three-day conference, there are small and exclusive seminars where power-players convene to have high-level discussions — essentially, it's the "room where it happens." But who's in those rooms?
The Family especially focuses on Russia's involvement in the National Prayer Breakfast. Maria Butina, who was accused of “acting as an agent of a foreign government” and trying to " “to establish a back channel of communication” attended the 2016, 2017, and 2018 National Prayer Breakfasts.
The documentary suggests that the Fellowship has significantly eroded the boundary between Church and State, one of the tenets of the Constitution, and that the National Prayer Breakfast is a free-for-all for lobbying.
Where is the Fellowship in 2019?
Well, it's certainly a bit less secret than it was before. Sharlet published his book after leaving the strange, heavily regimented environment of Ivanwald, where there is no sex, no drinking, and no entertainment.
Likely, Congresspeople across both parties still live in C Street, the Capitol Hill rowhouse owned by the Fellowship. Scandals in 2007 and 2009 involving Fellowship members in the government, Nevada senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, put C Street in the public eye. Both men spent time in C Street (Ensign lived there) before news of their extramarital affairs broke.
Now, the documentary will make it harder for the Family to keep its secrets.