by Fred Frommer

WASHINGTON -- Speaking from a platform once graced by U2 frontman Bono and Mother Teresa, Ward Brehm told a crowd of nearly 3,000 gathered Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast about his voyage from self-centered businessman to passionate advocate for Africa's poor.

Brehm, an Orono, Minn. resident who chairs the United States African Development Foundation, acknowledged he was an unlikely choice to give the keynote speech at the breakfast, whose guests included President Bush, members of Congress and world leaders. He said he expected most people were surprised to see an unknown speaker listed on their program.

"Let me tell you, you're not alone. One month ago, I sent in my registration to this breakfast and was just hoping for a good seat," he said to laughter.

The prayer breakfast is staged every year by the Fellowship Foundation, an evangelical Christian group.

Besides Brehm, another Minnesotan played a significant role. The state's Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar, addressed the group and gave a prayer for world leaders from the podium.

"God, we pray that our leaders find the God that lives within them to work together across borders to cure disease, confront hunger and poverty, and offer hope to the children of the world," she said.

Brehm, who also chairs the Brehm Group in Minneapolis, a national insurance consulting firm, recalled how he had been awakened to the African cause about 15 years ago. At the time, Africa wasn't on his radar -- "In fact, the only significant thing on that radar screen was me," he quipped.

But he started to give the crisis in Somalia some thought, and just a week later, his pastor asked him to go on a trip with him to Africa. Brehm declined the invitation, and his pastor requested he at least pray about it.

"I looked him right in the eye and I said, 'You're the pastor; you pray about it; I'll think about it,'" Brehm said to laughter. "Well, he must have prayed hard, because two months later, I found myself in the Minneapolis airport with a ticket to Ethiopia in my hand."

At the airport, he found himself surrounded by "church ladies," who hugged him and then held hands together in prayer.

"I uttered my first heartfelt and sincere prayer -- that none of my clients see me," he said to more laughter.

When he landed in Africa, Brehm said, "I had the high privilege of having my heart broken. I saw poverty on an obscene level. Children with flies on their eyes, for lack of a 50-cent medicine, doomed to blindness; the emaciated faces of famine; families shattered by civil war."

He also held the hand of a 22-year-old woman as she died of AIDS. "And then I turned to look into the faces of four brand new orphans," he said. "I was an eyewitness."

Brehm, 56, brings a business-oriented approach to the plight of Africa. In 2003, Bush appointed him to the U.S. African Development Foundation, a government agency that makes direct investments in Africa and whose goal is to help the poor through business development and job creation.

"The best way to help the poor is to help them not be poor anymore," said Brehm, who has visited Africa 30 times. "The only way I know how to do that is through job creation. The very best form of sustainable development is a steady paycheck."

Brehm suggested that most people, deep down, would love to have their lives changed by God.

"Here's the thing: If asked, he will, every time, guaranteed," he said. "And while these changes may initially seem scary, they ultimately lay a foundation for a life lived on purpose rather than by default. I will forever be indebted to Africa. Africa awakened me when I didn't even know I was asleep. I pray that everyone who seeks one will find a similar path. I pray that each of you will find your own Africa."

But Brehm also cautioned to avoid condescension toward poor people.

"In our quest to be helpful, we can rob the poor of their dignity," he said. "In order to be of any help to the poor, we need to understand them, we need to know them, we need to love them. The poor is not a group. The poor is not a species. They are identical in their hopes and dreams to you and I. They love their families. They long for a better life. The only difference between them and us is that they're poor."

Bush thanked Brehm for an "awesome" speech, adding, "I guess that's a presidential word."

Brehm got the speaking gig because of a friendship with Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who co-chaired the breakfast along with Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. Enzi met Brehm after reading Brehm's book, "White Man Walking: An American Businessman's Spiritual Adventure in Africa."

Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who attended this year's breakfast and co-chaired the one two years ago, said Thursday he had given Enzi a copy of the book during a congressional trip to Africa.

In a telephone interview later, Brehm called it an "amazing experience."

"It was a very obvious uplift for me," he said. "I don't give major speeches, it's not what I do. But I did feel a sense of acceptance. It's something I feel very, very passionately about, so it's not hard to talk about."