Praying for politics



Constituent-lawmaker relations have been strained lately, marked most vocally by enraged citizens at raucous town hall meetings in August.
Some people are still protesting. But others are praying.

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“People think prayer and politics don’t go together, but these are our lives,” said Everson, the executive director at Congregations for Community Action in her hometown. She helped coordinate a healthcare prayer vigil in August that ended in a visit to Rep. Bill Posey’s (R-Fla.) office. “Others might go out and protest or throw things, but we’re going to pray. This is what we know how to do.”

Prayer vigils for political ends — healthcare legislation, immigration reform and unity among politicians, to name a few — have emerged as a form of political engagement on Capitol Hill and across the country. They vary widely in structure, length, public turnout and even name (some organizers prefer the term “prayer rally”). But a common fixture in the prayers is a mention of members of Congress — that they may have wisdom and courage, vigil organizers say, to make the right decisions.

Around the Capitol this month, vigils have run the gamut from the Prayer, Renewal and Immigration rally to a Unity Prayer for Peace and Civility. Friday, thousands of Muslims took to the Capitol lawn for Islam on the Hill, an afternoon of prayer to Allah. And in August, Everson’s vigil was one of 48 prayer events affiliated with People Improving Communities Through Organizing (PICO), a nationwide push to peacefully debate and pray for healthcare reform.

At the end of Everson’s 25-minute vigil, she sent a picture of the attendees to Posey, along with a note saying that he was in their prayers.

“I think a lot of [members of Congress] need prayer and want prayer,” she said in a phone interview.

And most of the vigil organizers want their lawmakers to know about their efforts. Many of the vigils include a letter to a lawmaker, a press conference or a rally on the steps of a politician’s office.

Though prayer is often an intimate dialogue between a man and his creator, a political prayer vigil has a very public component to it, said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University.

“[Prayer vigils] are more the idea of being a public spectacle — something that people are going to notice,” Olson said. “Otherwise, why have a public prayer vigil if you weren’t trying to attract attention?”

Take, for example, this how-to guide for staging a vigil, found on the Stop the Abortion Mandate website.

“Holding a prayer vigil is easy,” it proclaims in bold letters.

Step one?

“Find the address of your Representative’s or Senator’s district office,” it directs, with links to registries for the House and Senate. Later steps include inviting your member of Congress to attend and alerting media outlets.

This fusion of religion and politics has been evident in several prayer vigils lately.

Billed as an interfaith vigil to end hate speech toward immigrants, the Prayer, Renewal and Immigration rally held on the Capitol lawn Sept. 15 featured speeches by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and clergy members.

The small horde of speakers and members of the media gave the rally a similar appearance to an anti-Defense of Marriage Act protest held just minutes before. Even members of Congress have become deft at transitioning from traditional rally to religious vigil — Polis spoke at both rallies, donning a yarmulke for his speech at the religious-themed event.

But Yvette Schock, the immigration vigil organizer and a grassroots coordinator at the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, said the event was different from any other rally because of the message in the speeches and the group prayers.

“I think whether they were saying, ‘Oh Holy God’ and ‘Amen,’ or not, it was still faith-rooted speech,” Schock said.

People are even looking to inject prayer into the hottest of current affairs. In the wake of Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst during President Barack Obama’s address to Congress this month, Rocky Twyman, of Rockville, Md., has been a fixture on Capitol Hill.

Pacing the other side of the Capitol during the immigration hate speech rally, he appealed to passers-by to pray for a “Congressional Prayer Summit,” in which Wilson, Obama and members of Congress could join together to talk and pray.

“We can’t get anything done with all this partisan bickering,” said the self-proclaimed prayer warrior, adding that prayer is the answer to life’s problems.

“Obama’s brilliant but he’s no God. There’s only so much he can do.”

Twyman would like to hold an all-night vigil by the White House, and he encourages individuals to pray at noon each day for congressional and executive unity.

Prayers work, he says. During the gas-price spike of 2008, Twyman attracted attention for his Pray at the Pump campaign.

“We prayed at the gas stations, and the prices came down,” he said.

Clemson’s Olson said throughout history, vigils have commonly been centered on specifics, such as a particular public policy or social problem.

Still, members of Congress have mixed feelings on the role of prayer in political matters.

“If you can do generic prayers, then why not specific prayers?” Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said. “God would expect that you would ask him for help.”

And Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, said those of faith should feel free to pray for specifics, noting the importance of having the right to pray.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), on the other hand, said he thinks the use of prayer to advance public policy can wrongly politicize the sacred act.

“I don’t pray for legislation,” said Cleaver, who is also a United Methodist minister. “To me, that’s an attempt to pimp God.”

Others strike a balance between the two. Women of Praize, a group mostly made up of current and former congressional staffers, held a vigil Sept. 17 to pray for unity in America. Approximately 30 people gathered over lunch for a solemn hour of prayer in a Rayburn House Office Building room.

BlackBerrys, out on empty seats, blinked messages from the outside world to their owners, but for that hour, devotion was tangible.

One by one they prayed for unity, stability in the country, safety for the president and wisdom for members of Congress.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) gave a warm thank-you to attendees for keeping members of Congress and the rest of the country in their prayers.

“We are all interrelated and interdependent,” he told The Hill later. “If you care about your own health, safety and well-being, you should pray for the country.”

But attendee Rinia Shelby-Crooms, who offered a prayer to Johnson and the other members of Congress, noted afterward that simply praying is not enough.

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“People should continue to lobby members of Congress,” she advised. “You can have faith in God, but you still have a duty to work.”

Both Ansah and Everson in Florida agreed that, while not an answer to every public debate, prayer vigils can bring people of different faiths to a cause.

The event Everson had for Posey probably was not a by-the-book prayer vigil, Everson conceded.

“But I think the word ‘prayer’ for us was key,” she said. “We just wanted to have some kind of event to let the public officials know that we were watching and we were waiting — and we were praying.”