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How America prays

A Monitor poll finds a large majority of Americans say prayer can have a positive effect on world events

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor Editor's note: Last September,many Americans found themselves actively praying as they confronted a devastating terrorist attack. A new poll indicates that prayer still figures prominently in their lives – and that they believe their efforts can have a positive, tangible impact on world events. / September 12, 2002

On the cataclysmic morning of Sept. 11, as Courtney Cowart fled her office building a block south of the World Trade Center, she experienced a moment so profound that it changed the way she has prayed ever since.

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As she and a colleague ran hand in hand, the ground began to shake and the air to crackle. Turning, they saw a huge black ball of debris flying toward them. "You tried at one level to figure out where to go, but realized there wasn't anyplace," Ms. Cowart recalls. As the cloud enveloped them, "I just stopped and offered my life to God."

Today, she says, "I always go back to that moment of surrender to start my prayer." For eight months after the attacks, she volunteered support to the workers at ground zero, where she and others felt empowered to do more than seemed humanly possible. "Now I have a strong sense of life as prayer."

Amid an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability, most Americans, like Cowart, have turned to prayer. This has long been a nation of believers – with people of many faiths coming to US shores to practice and pray freely. But many say 9/11 has given new intensity to their efforts, and they hold high expectations for the power of their invocations.

According to a Monitor/TIPP poll, a vast majority expect prayer to have a positive impact on individual lives and on national and world events (see chart). While less than half of Americans regularly attend religious services, some 60 percent say they pray once or more a day, and another 21 percent at least once a week. One-third of those who pray say they pray more than before the attacks.

In doing so, they are throwing their energy into activity they believe really matters.

"By praying, Americans are doing what they can to make the world a better, safer place," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, the unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence that conducted the poll.

Americans who pray are most likely to be seeking guidance (62 percent). Just over half emphasize gratitude and praise for God. The topics most frequently prayed about are peace and safety.

Interviews with individuals across the country reveal that prayer in the shadow of Sept. 11 is often transforming – and represents for many the most important step they can take, both for their own security and to influence world events. Prayer is a vital force on the larger scene, they say, because they've seen its impact in their own lives.

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Californian Kim Risedorph has a sign above her desk: "Prayer changes things." A mother of two, she felt the events of 9/11 in the pit of her stomach, wondering how she'd be able to keep her children safe. But through prayer, she says, as she tucked the children in one night, the fear dissolved into deep gratitude for the gift of being a mom, and the confidence to enjoy the kids more each day.

Another work in progress, she says, is learning to pray for the world. Her efforts include "reading the newspaper as a prayer concern rather than a fear inducer, and holding onto every sign of good without ignoring things that need to be addressed, like shedding hatred and knee-jerk judgments."

A Methodist church she's involved with has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a healing garden for the community. "That feels like an answer to my prayer to be part of a larger vision of a loving world," she adds.

For New Yorker Joan Gaylord, the Bible admonition to "pray without ceasing" became her lifeline. The Christian Scientist lost friends in the tragedy, including one of the passengers who wrestled the hijackers on Flight 93. She works across the street from one known terrorist target and lives with her teenagers in a high-alert area surrounding a nuclear-power plant.

"Prayer couldn't just be a quiet pullback for a few moments – I had to remain immersed in a prayerful frame of mind and put those prayers into action," she says. The more she expressed kindness and patience, the more she saw it in others, and it rid her of heartache and bitterness. "I'm a better person than a year ago, and I have new and stronger friendships," she adds.