It was my first Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast. I had no idea what to expect. Master’s College Principal Susan McAllister had ordered a bunch of tickets and said she had one for me, and I thought it would be interesting to attend.
I pictured a pallid hotel banquet hall with little more than a hundred people awkwardly huddled under bright fluorescent lights and praying at tables in between mouthfuls of dried muffins chased with watered down coffee. And uncharacteristic of a modern person, I did not stake out the venue on YouTube in order to prepare myself. I knew I was meeting some students there, but wasn’t exactly sure who they would possibly be. And I wondered what the relevance of a prayer breakfast would be in a modern city that seems to be getting along well enough without God. Who would show up to such a thing? How is prayer relevant in the life of a modern city built on human reason and ingenuity?
The secular world, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains in his book A Secular Age, is not so much a world in which the majority believes that God does not exist, but rather worse: that the world functions perfectly fine without Him.
All these questions buzzed around my mind as my father and I pulled into the Telus Centre underground parking lot at 6:45 am amidst flecks of street light that clung to the brooding morning darkness. In the city, morning and night are indistinguishable.
The Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast
The Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast was founded in 1968 as the Calgary Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. This year thus marked the 50th Anniversary of the prayer breakfast, though the name has changed to the Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast. The mandate of the prayer breakfast is “to declare a belief that only Jesus Christ can meet the needs of the human heart and that God’s wisdom and help is needed to be effective leaders in our world.”
My father and I stepped inside the conference hall—it was massive, brightly lit, and had all the fixings of a high-profile gathering: linen table cloths bedecked with shimmering silverware and long-stem glasses. At the front of the hall was an expansive platform wrapped in royal blue drapery and flanked by large screens, and at the centre a stately looking podium behind which stood the Canadian and Alberta flags. We bumped into Peter and Janet Muller, as well as some other friends and colleagues. After some mingling around, my father and I parted company to our respective tables.
A Who’s Who of Alberta
By the time I got to my table, I realized that all my assumptions about the Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast had been quashed. The hall was flooding with people—hundreds of people were showing up to pray for Calgary, Alberta, and the world. And it wasn’t just dry muffins and cold coffee, but a bona fide sausage and egg and hash brown breakfast. And talk about a whose who of Calgary! The table behind me was the head table where United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney sat with Calgary Flames President Ken King, Licia Corbella, columnist of the Calgary Herald and keynote speaker, and the emcee of the breakfast: Calgary news personality and anchor and feature reporter for CTV, Darrel Janz. Across the other side and one table over sat Mayor Naheed Nenshi. For the sake of adding a little cheese to this post, this group really put the ‘leadership’ in the Leadership Breakfast.
The prayer breakfast is more than just an annual event, I thought to myself as I sat there taking it all in, it is part of the culture of the City of Calgary—arguably as much as the Calgary Stampede itself, albeit much younger.
Our Student Council Members Engaged In The Political And Spiritual Dialogue Of Our City, Province, and Nation
Sitting next to me was Curtis Arends, one of our College teachers. We talked for a while about how we came to Christ after years of scepticism and agnosticism—albeit in between figuring out what carafe held the decaf coffee and which held the real thing. (When it comes to coffee at 7am, you want-need!-the real thing!)
The rest of the people at my table were members of our Student Council. There wasn’t much conversation between us as we munched away on our eggs and sausage, but what really struck me was that Master’s was one among only several other schools attending the prayer breakfast, and here, sitting across from the leaders of Alberta, were members of our Student Council. They had come to engage in the conversation about what’s happening in our city and province, and to be part of offering it all up to God in prayer.
These are the kinds of young people, I thought to myself, who I want to take up the torch as the next generation of leaders. Some maintain that the young people of today are too digital to be adequate leaders of our world—that they are the “disengaged”. But I didn’t see that with our students. They were attentive, caring, and deeply engaged.
Putting Prayer in The Calgary Leadership Breakfast
The prayer portion of the breakfast was beyond my expectations. One by one, leaders of the city approached the podium and offered up passionate supplications to God:
- Becky Mensah, owner of Becky’s Draperies, prayed for a “spirit of resurrection to move through all the leaders of Canada”;
- Pat Nixon, Executive Director of Oxford House, prayed that we would care for the poor and the addicted, and that we would see Christ in the brokenness of our city;
- Constable Sheldon Arends (no known relation to our Curtis Arends) prayed for the protection of our nation at a critical point in history, as well as wisdom and strength for police, emergency personnel, and our military, concluding the prayer with, “God keep this land glorious and free.”;
- Tom Dewaal, a Captain at the Calgary Fire Department, prayed that God would give all teachers, university professors, and other educators wisdom, and concluded his time by praying that, “Our greatest need, O Lord, is You.”
As the prayers were being offered, the majority of people stood in agreement praying over the city of Calgary, our province, and nation. I didn’t anticipate such a passionate outpouring of prayer. For some reason, I originally thought the prayers would be contrived and overly formal; but as I watched and listened, I saw real fervour for our broken world and a deep reverence for God.
Come to the Table . . .
He said come to the table
Come join the sinners who have been redeemed
Take your place beside the Saviour now
Sit down and be set free
Come to the table . . .
It was a beautiful song choice for the breakfast—this theme of coming to the table with fellow sinners who have been redeemed, with broken people praying for a broken world. And the band did a great job of it—folky, melodic, a humble offering to God. As I sat listening to the song, munching on a remaining piece of toast, I felt part of something bigger than my personal concerns, something bigger than me, and part of something the city desperately needs. And I was thankful that people were showing up, that people still believed in God, and that leaders were coming together to ask God for His mercy and grace. In the midst of a world of strife, hostility, and economic instability, people were showing up en masse not to protest, but to pray.
After the music, Ken King of the Calgary Flames gave a short series of comments urging us to push back against the secular world that wants to keep us from God. He read two scripture passages: The words of Christ from John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life . . .”; and the Parable of the Vineyard from Matthew 20, in which those workers who came last to the vineyard received the same payment as those who came at the beginning of the day, concluding with that powerful verse 16, “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Licia Corbella: An Olympic Dream Shattered & The Search For Truth
Licia Corbella, Columnist for the Calgary Herald, gave the keynote address. As she walked on the stage, a scene from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters flashed on the large screens that flanked the podium—it was that scene in which the main character, played by Woody Allen, is seeking truth by consulting all the major religions and the great works of philosophy.
Corbella began by telling about her life as a child in Vancouver, and her ambition to become an Olympic swimmer: by the age of twelve she had broken her first Canadian record in the 200m Individual Medley. At the age of fourteen, she made the Canadian National Swim Team, and had a very legitimate dream to attend the 1980 Moscow Olympic games.
But then emerged the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent decision by the U.S. and Canada to pull out of the Olympic games in Moscow. Licia’s Olympic dreams were over. Shortly after, her coach left for California, and her parents separated.
“My life was shattered,” she concluded. “Disillusioned I left swimming. My mother got depressed about her failed marriage, and I did too. I started self-medicating with the stuff that is being legalized today. I didn’t care anymore. I came to the conclusion that in spite of doing everything right, things can still go wrong. I came to the conclusion that life in a godless universe is meaningless. The world moved along; I moved along. I had to do it with a broken dream, a broken home, and a broken heart.”
After her high school graduation, she decided to travel around Europe, during which she sought truth in the great philosophers.
“I saw beautiful cathedrals . . . . I saw great works of art about the life of Jesus. But to me, the paintings depicted fanciful stories . . . . It was at that time in my life when I felt like Woody Allen—I devoured books on secular philosophy . . . . I hung out with many amazing people: actors, writers, and poets—many of them world famous.”
Ultimately, she explained, she wanted freedom, but didn’t know where to find it.
“I met people on the Spanish island of Mallorca who had reached the pinnacle of the rock and roll world, and they didn’t have any answers to life’s big questions. They were pretty messed up. And yet unlike me, they had fame, great wealth, adoration, talent, good looks—but it wasn’t enough. They thought that by bucking societal conventions they ‘d be free—instead they were shackled by addictions. They could be so much fun, but they were often just so sad and desperate.”
Eventually Corbella settled down for a time in Deia, the ultimate resting place of the poet Robert Graves—but even there, in the idyll of olive groves and the horizonless expanse of the Mediterranean, she could find no peace.
“It wasn’t enough—I didn’t feel free in spite of no external constraints to my freedom,” Corbella explained.
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” Corbella continued, quoting from C.S. Lewis, “the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The Billy Graham Crusade That Changed Everything…
It was after that time in Deia that Corbella decided to become a journalist. She was hired on at a newspaper in Vancouver, and soon after met Steven—the man who would later become her husband, a marriage going on now almost 32 years. They were both seeking the answers to life’s big questions, and, Corbella explained, silently seeking them in God.
There was a woman who lived upstairs from Licia and Steven in their apartment building in Vancouver. Billy Graham was having a crusade that weekend at the new BC Place Stadium, and the woman invited Licia to join her and her husband. She and Steven attended—albeit reluctantly.
“It was there at Billy Graham,” Licia explained, “that I realized that Jesus was important to me, and not just some historical figure.”
And here was the culmination of her message: “All those years I thought that the truth was a concept. Then I realized that truth was a Person.”
She realized that Truth was not something to be reached conceptually with the mind through philosophical systems, but rather a living Person Whom you find with your heart.
“Jesus hounded my mind, and Steven’s too,” Licia continued. “We returned to hear Dr. Graham on the Sunday, and received Christ on October 21, 1984.”
And then this astonishing statement:
“That day is the most important day of my life: more than my wedding day, more than the birth of my beautiful twin boys.” She quoted C.S. Lewis again, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In February 2015, Corbella was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, through which her faith in Christ has sustained her. “I’m not afraid of dying,” she explained with a brightness in her eyes, “I know where I am going when my time comes. And that is the most liberating thing of all.”
At the end of her talk, she closed in prayer—only this was not a typical closing prayer, but rather more akin to a Billy Graham Crusade: she led the room in the prayer of reconciliation of the human heart to Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the entrance into a new life. “If you don’t know Jesus,” she said, “just pray this prayer—today is your day. You are here for a reason.” And immediately after the prayer she said, “If you just prayed that prayer, then welcome to God’s family—we are now brothers and sisters.”
I was deeply moved by Licia’s testimony, and her unflinching and passionate faith in God. I had met Licia before, enjoyed her columns in the Calgary Herald, and even submitted a few columns to her in the past, but had not heard her story before. I resonated with her philosophical search for truth, her discontentment with life, and the freedom and peace Christ brings to our lives when we accept Him as our Lord and Saviour.
Becoming Imaginal Leaders
As everyone was filing out of the Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast, and others were lining up to greet Licia Corbella, I stopped Curtis and the students for a quick photo. I was proud of our students for getting up early and attending such an important event. They embodied the Imaginal Leaders profile of Master’s: those who are able to see, learn from, and create the future.
In another blog post I write about a study done by the Technology Council of Alberta titled, “Engaging Youth“. It was a report for which 3000 Alberta young people were polled about their thoughts and feeling about the future. Two significant results of the research were that:
- Alberta young people want to be involved in political dialogue, but don’t know how, and
- Alberta young people have a hunger to know the truth.
To me, our students took part in (1) and (2) by their willingness to participate in an event that was part of the political and spiritual dialogue of our city, province, and nation.
May God bless, watch over, and guide our students, and young people everywhere, as they become the next leaders of our land.