How America prays

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

By , Staff 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.

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.

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."

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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.

The aftermath of 9/11 brought unexpected results in the life of Sophy Burnham, an author of books on spirituality, including "The Path of Prayer." The Washington, D.C., resident left Christianity years ago to explore other faiths. But prayer has taken her back this year to the Christian church of her childhood.

"We are such prideful beings that unless we are brought to our knees, we think we are in control – that's why suffering is our friend," she emphasizes. "God is with us – and when we hook into the universe of love we have enormous power...."

She is convinced that can affect world events. "We all understand that hatred and anger breed mob violence; why not accept that the energy of love will be felt?" she asks.

* * *

Islam literally means surrender to God, and all Muslims are expected to stop five times every day for ceremonial prayers. But they also pray at other times, and Muslim Americans say that they've faced their most challenging year ever – grappling with the "hijacking" of the faith by terrorists, responding to positive and negative reactions of others, and defending their status as US citizens.

Khadeeja Abdullah, a poised young Californian starting her freshman year at UCLA, is still uncertain about her college major – maybe Middle East studies or journalism. But she is certain about two things: the power of prayer and the need to show Americans that the perpetrators of the terrorist acts are not representative of Muslims. Yesterday, Ms. Abdullah offered a prayer she wrote about 9/11 at an interfaith service at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles.

She remembers how distraught she felt on that horrific morning: "I prayed then that nothing would happen to anyone else, and that people would see the good in the hearts of other people and come together to find common ground."

And everywhere she goes, she says, she sees that: "Though there might be some people who are ignorant, the majority are opening their hearts and extending their hands."

The Abdullah family held prayer ceremonies at their home in San Bernardino County the week after the attacks. They have organized gatherings throughout the year, including a recent prayer vigil in a nearby park.

Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr left Iran during the Islamic revolution and teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "I've seen incredible results from prayer in my personal life and in praying for others," he says. "We cannot gauge the extent to which it affects macro events ... but I believe in the infinite power of prayer."

Along with supporting those directly touched by the tragedy, he's prayed that there would not be a backlash against innocent Muslims and "for an opening for greater mutual understanding between Islam and the West."

But misunderstanding seems to be intensifying, he worries, with more strident attacks against Islam in the US media – including those calling Islam "an evil religion."

"In this country ... this is not allowed against Judaism or Christianity, or even Buddhism or Hinduism," he says, "and I pray that this phase of polarization and extremism ... will come to an end."

He's offering his contribution to a solution with a new book called "The Heart of Islam."

Islam has its own internal challenges, including counteracting extremism. Sherman Jackson, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, says he prays to have the courage to say what needs to be said both to non-Muslims and to Muslims. At a national conference of the Muslim Students Association last week, for example, he challenged students to live up to Koranic principles of respect for all, and not be taken in by language that dehumanizes, such as the term "kafirs," misused in the Islamic world to denigrate non-Muslims as "infidels."

* * *

When George W. Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, the nation was deeply split over the election. Sculptor William Hunter, whose works are found in many public settings, worried it would be hard for the new president to do the job. He felt the nation needed to get behind Mr. Bush with prayer. Then the terrorist attacks made it urgent.

"If you look back in our history, we've always wanted to do right, we've always wanted to fix things, and after 9/11 people wanted something tangible they could do," Mr. Hunter says.

So he put into action his idea of a nonpartisan Presidential Prayer Team. A website was set up (www.presidentialprayerteam.org), and Americans were invited to sign up to pray daily for the president and other US officials and their families. The goal is to mobilize at least 2.8 million citizens. The staff researches official schedules for the coming week and posts requests for prayer, including suggestions of which officials to support daily. "Early on, we had 25,000 Americans a day signing up," Hunter says. So far, they have gained 1.2 million members.

"Most important, President Bush has said many times that he feels those prayers," says Evelyn Christenson, founder of United Prayer Ministry, who is on the team. Long active in the evangelical prayer movement, she has written prayer guides used around the world, and has traveled on five continents. When she travels, Ms. Christenson says, a thousand people are on a prayer chain supporting her 24 hours a day.

* * *

But if last September's events united a wide variety of people in prayer, it also spotlighted the dark historical truth that religion plays a role in conflict as well as in human progress. Many Americans have joined interfaith prayer services to help foster understanding and protect the nation's pluralistic unity. The TIPP poll shows that 26 percent of Americans who pray are more interested than before in praying with people of different faiths.

"I have felt a more intense desire than ever in my life to connect with people of other religions, to sit with them and study their sacred texts and hear the prayers they offer – and to share my own," says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Consequently, the center has convened gatherings across traditions. "It's probably the first time an imam offered a prayer in a Kosher steak house!" he adds.

Yet tensions have also increased as some religious and media voices have taken a stridently antagonistic stance toward Islam. For a decade, there has been a worldwide evangelical prayer movement to convert those seen as being under the influence of Satan. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, issues guides for how to pray to convert Muslims, Jews, and others. But now, inflammatory language from Franklin Graham and others, includingcolumnists and talk-show hosts, is portraying Islam as violent and evil – and is being disseminated with little opposition.

Both Christians and Muslims emphasize the importance of spreading the faith. But what concerns some observers is the increasingly ideological thrust of certain groups.

They say America's future depends on finding an "authentictoleration." "In a world ruled by ideologies – whether secular or religious, whether Protestant Fundamentalism or Islamicism – there is no room for listening, only struggle and conflict," warns theologian A.J. Conyers in a recent op-ed column.

* * *

Over the course of the year, Americans' priorities for prayer have shifted with developments. Jeff Kaster, a college teacher in St. Cloud, Minn., is concerned about a possible war against Iraq: "My prayers are for peace and wisdom in finding nonviolent solutions to these issues."

David Weiss, a real-estate agent in Phoenix, says he prays "for guidance for senators and Bush and Colin Powell so they have insight for a peaceful resolution in the Middle East."

Along with prayers to free people from anxiety and confusion, Phyllis Tickle, contributing religious editor for Publishers Weekly, seeks an answer to what she sees as a bellicose US response. "My deep concern is that we've responded with 1950s rhetoric that is out of sync with where we are as people of the globe today," she says.

With stakes so much higher now, some say they are praying more humbly. "One answer to prayer was that if I'm doing what God directs me to do – faithfully and with courage – He will take care of the whole," Ms. Gaylord says. "But if I don't do my part ... or [if I] leave the world to take care of itself, how can we expect to see the completeness of the whole?"

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