Range of events planned for 'Day of Prayer'


Braving rain, cold, darkness and even tornado watches, a procession of committed Christians have taken their turns since Sunday night in a marathon, cover-to-cover reading of the Bible in front of the State House in Annapolis.

Their efforts will culminate in today's National Day of Prayer, a congressionally sanctioned religious observance that will be marked by pilots praying in planes above San Francisco, Bikin' Believers riding in Dallas and 20,000 worshippers filling a stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Organizers of the 51st annual event say it has taken on greater relevance and urgency since Sept. 11. They expect "unprecedented" participation.

"9/11 was a wakeup call to the citizenry, that we need to seek God's face," said Marcia Reinhart, Maryland coordinator of the National Day of Prayer.

But critics say the observance amounts to governmental promotion of religion.

"I think it's fundamentally wrong for the U.S. Congress to specifically declare a particular day as one for a specially high level of religious commitment," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church And State.

"Congress should not take the position of what day or what form prayer should take for Americans, or whether they should pray at all."

Others question the National Day of Prayer's inclusiveness. Although officially nonsectarian, the events tend to be heavily weighted toward Christianity.

There is scarcely an interfaith prayer service in Baltimore to which Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat isn't invited. But Arafat, a college lecturer and chaplain at the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, said he was left out of today's festivities.

"No one called me for anything like that," he said. "Normally, people call me when it comes to something like that because I'm known in the area for interfaith work."

Particularly given the events of Sept. 11, Arafat thinks interfaith prayer is important to create a feeling of solidarity. "I really think that we do need to pray together," he said.

"There's nothing wrong with people praying individually in their houses of worship, but it would be nice to see us also praying together."

Organizers trace the origins of the event to 1775, when the Continental Congress designated a time of prayer for wisdom in forming a new nation.

An annual national day of prayer was proclaimed by a joint resolution of Congress in 1952. That was amended in 1988, designating the first Thursday in May for the event.

Each year, the president issues a proclamation marking the event. Nearly every governor, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland, does the same.

A notable exception is Jesse Ventura, the iconoclastic governor of Minnesota.

This year, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate wrote the official prayer that will be included in every observance, asking God to "bless our President, Congress, and all our leaders with supernatural power."

But while the proclamations call all people to prayer, critics say the observance is aimed primarily at evangelical Christians.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force, the nonprofit agency that coordinates the observance, is led by Shirley Dobson, whose husband, James Dobson, is founder of Focus on the Family and a leader of the religious right.

And the overwhelming majority of events are organized by evangelical churches and their members.

For this, national organizers make no apologies. The national task force is privately run and receives no government funding, they say. Rather than being a violation of the separation of church and state, they say, the observance is an expression of the freedom of worship.

"We are the Christian expression of the National Day of Prayer," said Jim Weidmann, vice chairman of the task force. "We exercise our rights just as any group can, who want to call their community to prayer."

There are good reasons so few events are interfaith, Weidmann said.

"There are fundamental differences between Christian and non-Christian faiths," he said. "Because there are fundamental differences in what we believe, there are fundamental differences in how we pray and worship. In order to stay true to the integrity of the message and who we are, we hold a Christian expression of the National Day of Prayer."

Those of other faiths can hold their own events, Weidmann added, "just as they have same rights and privileges on Sunday morning to open their doors to their temples and synagogues."

Many observances are held in or near government buildings because those are often the main community gathering areas, organizers said.

The national event will be in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington; it will include officials from all three branches of the federal government.

In Maryland, more than 50 events are scheduled, including prayer rallies at county courthouses and other government offices from Cumberland to Ocean City.

"I think this gives people an opportunity to leave their place of business and go to a public forum for prayer without having the label of 'I'm going to church,'" said Reinhart, the Maryland coordinator. "We did approach malls, but they're not interested in having it in their malls."

That's why workers and visitors to the State House this week had an opportunity to hear the words and deeds of biblical heroes, although none stopped to listen as Deborah Cornwell of Arnold read one chilly morning from the Book of Ezra.

By reading the word of God in the shadow of the State House, Cornwell said, she hoped a few legislators would hear.

"For state leaders to make good decisions for the welfare of the people," she said, "they need God's direction."

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