WASHINGTON — For years, the brick facade of a three-story house near the Capitol has functioned as a shield for the lawmakers who live and pray there, offering sanctuary from the temptations of political life — and discretion for those who succumbed.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford blew away much of the privacy of the place over the past week, revealing he had confided in his "C Street" friends, a collection of current and former lawmakers, about the cross-continental affair he had hidden from his wife.
Their universal response: Break up with the mistress, according to several knowledgeable people who spoke on condition of anonymity.
That these details and more have been connected with the red-brick house at 133 C Street S.E. defies the secrecy that those associated with the Christian facility have long sought to maintain.
The building, registered in District of Columbia tax records as a religious and commercial building, is affiliated with a Christian group of many names, including the "Fellowship Foundation." The group sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast attended by the president, members of Congress and dignitaries around the world.
It also hosts luncheons and prayer groups on the first two floors. The top floor of bedrooms is occupied by both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, all Christians, who pay rent that in the past has been partially subsidized by the fellowship.
Those who have lived and prayed there have described the building as a home away from home for lawmakers, a space for them to socialize, live a Christian lifestyle and confide in each other while they're away from their families.
Some of those private subjects have become embarrassingly public. Two lawmakers connected to the so-called "C Street community" have revealed they had extramarital affairs.
Sanford, who apparently has never lived there, nonetheless said he turned to "C Street" for counsel and solace while in the throes of extramarital romance with a woman named Maria from Argentina. His spiritual adviser, Warren "Cubby" Culbertson, in an interview with The Associated Press, described the C Street crowd as "the guys Mark hung out with in Washington."
One of the group on Wednesday confirmed counseling Sanford about the governor's affair.
"Former Rep. Steve Largent, a member of the C Street community, said he had discussions with both Mark and Jenny Sanford this year, regarding their marriage," Largent said in a statement to the AP.
Sanford wasn't a unique case. Sen. John Ensign, who has lived at the C Street address, is reported to have been confronted about his recently disclosed affair with a female campaign staffer who was married to one of his top Senate aides. The woman's husband, Douglas Hampton, wrote in a letter to Fox News that another resident of the house, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., did the confronting.
All the recent talk has made for a convulsion of publicity, tinged with scandal, for a house and a community of the devout who have labored for years to avoid it.
At least six lawmakers lived at the house as of January, including Coburn and Ensign, according to information provided by knowledgeable Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan officials who demanded anonymity because the information was not public.
Representatives for the fellowship are hard to find. No spokesman could be reached directly or had responded by Wednesday to requests for comment submitted through members of the C Street community. The building itself is owned by a group called Youth With A Mission Washington DC Inc. C St. Center, according to city records. An e-mail to the founders of Youth With A Mission seeking comment went unanswered.
In a 2003 AP story, Richard Carver, then a member of the group's board of directors, said the group's goal with members of Congress was "to hope that we can assist them in better understanding of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs."
Jim Winkler, then a lobbyist for the church, said of lawmakers, "We don't approach them and ask for their support for anything."
It is not the only Capitol Hill home away from home run by a religious group for lawmakers.
The United Methodist Building, at 100 Maryland Ave. across from the Capitol, has for 75 years been the church's office in Washington. It also has been home to members of Congress and even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ecumenical offices, from which the march on Washington was planned, according to its Web site.
There's a difference, according to one who has worked in the Methodist Building. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the secrecy surrounding the C Street house makes it possible for the fellowship to influence lawmakers who live and pray there beyond the public eye.
They have said community members "sit down every week at a specific time and talk about religion in our lives. Well, these are members of Congress," Lynn said. "Part of their life is what they're voting on in Congress."