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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Power of Prayer

Much has been written about the power of prayer. Many who read this BLOG will have personal stories to tell about the power of prayer in their personal lives.

I, for one, will give personal testimony to the power of prayer in my own life as well as the lives of many, many others.

Most recently, a study at Johns Hopkins University indicated that those patients who knew that people were praying for them saw an impact on the process of healing and recovery.

But, what is the political power of prayer?

Suddenly, prayer is all the rage in the halls of Congress and in the White House. The lines between the separation of church and state, a foundational principal of this country, have become fuzzy in this administration.

Indeed, with the alliance of the so-called conservatives, fundamentals and evangelicals in The Episcopal Church who are more than adequately funded by the IRD (Institute for Religion and Democracy), a very lucrative deal seems to have been stuck with the devil to “return this country to its Christian founding principles.”

The boundaries of the First Amendment are being sorely tested in Sussex County, DE. As a home owner in this county, as well as one who is deeply committed to personal prayer, I’ve been following the most recent test of this question – much less the test of my faith – with no small amount of interest.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s the situation: The Indian River School District, comprised of the towns of Selbyville, Frankford, Dagsboro, Gumboro, Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach , Ocean View, Millsboro and Georgetown, DE, have been embroiled in a tense argument about prayer in schools.

It all happened, innocently enough, at the June, 2004 graduation ceremony at Sussex Central High School. One graduating senior, Samantha Dobrich, who ranked academically fifth in her class and earned a letter as a member of the cross country ski team, sat quietly at her graduation as she listened to the closing invocation offered by Jerry Fike, pastor at Mt. Oliver Brethren church in Georgetown: “We pray that you direct them into the truth, and eventually the truth that comes by knowing Jesus.”

In that moment, Samantha Dobrich responded the way most Christian fundamentalists would want – she sat quietly and said nothing. But, she couldn’t stop listening. And, what she heard made her turn to her mother, Mona Dobrich, for solace.

Here’s her mother’s testimony at the July 27, 2004 meeting of the Indian River Board of Education.: “This past June, I attended my daughter’s graduation from Sussex Central High School. I listened as the pastor led the crowd in prayer. I looked down to see my daughter searching for my face in the crowd. It was in her eyes, and I saw it: The pain that comes from being made to feel like an outsider.”

Mona, who also graduated from Sussex Central High School, and her husband, Marco, saw Fike’s prayer as part of a pattern of district support of Christianity. They and an anonymous family sued Indian River School District in U.S. District Court in Wilmington in February, 2005, eight months after the graduation ceremony and after, the lawsuit says, the district consistently refused to respond to their concerns.

Indeed, every indication is that the district continues to open each session with prayer – with specific references to Jesus and without apology – citing that all ten of the School Board members are Christian.

Included as plaintiffs in the suit are Samantha’s brother, Alexander “Alex” Dobrich, 13, who attended North Georgetown Elementary, also part of Indian River, and the anonymous family’s two children, both students in the district. According to Willmington Attorney Thomas Allingham, who is representing the families, the one couple chose to remain anonymous because they were afraid of reprisal from the community.

Apparently, with good cause.

That lawsuit and another lawsuit stemming from it are still pending. Those battles continue.

But, many residents of the Indian River School District are gearing up for an even longer and far-reaching battle, for what they see as the very soul of Sussex County. They see this as a battle for the survival, even, of the United States itself. (Sound even vaguely familiar?)

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says the Rev. David Bennett of the Church of Christ in Dagsboro, who has led the singing of hymns at school board meetings. (! ! !)

“There are a number of organizations out there, especially the American Civil Liberties Union, that are trying to change the American Christian view to an atheistic, godless world view. They don’t like Christians and they want to destroy Christianity.”

“We will not sit idly by and let this happen. The ACLU has had its best day.”

I could pull up quotes that would sound like verses three and four of the same hymn, written by the likes of David Anderson and Moderator Bob Duncan.

One verse begins: “Stand Firm.” The other begins: “Choose the day.”

It’s the dominant white, straight, Christian male paradigm writ large and it is feeling under attack by the progressive movement in this country. And, it is fighting back – well funded and well trained – armed and ready for a Christian jihad.

It is just as pernicious when applied to prayer in school as it is in the Episcopal Church in particular and the Anglican Communion in general.

Listen to this quote by Dr. Donald Hattier, a School Board member and chiropractor who answers “10-4!” when asked if he is a Christian, who often volunteers to offer the prayer at the start of School Board meetings.

“Praying is about giving yourself up, about saying, ‘I don’t know everything and please help me,’” he says. “It is about going above and beyond mere ego, about being willing to humble yourself.”

And, it works, he adds. “Look at the test scores in Indian River,” he says, “Look at the number of superior schools we have” – of the district’s 14 schools, 12 are rated superior, the state’s highest rating based on test scores; the other two are rated commendable, the second-highest rating – “and the number of Blue Ribbon schools” – schools recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for academic excellence or improvement. “We have done good, and part of that is because of prayer.”

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to those of us who have been harangued by the “facts and figures” of the purported decline of membership in the Episcopal Church?

If I hear one more comment rubbing the face of the Episcopal Church in the “failure” of The Decade of Evangelism or 20/20, I think I’ll scream.

How could either of those two movements have found any success when there was a concerted effort to undermine or outright sabotage any success by the conservative-evangelical-orthodox group which is determined to destroy the Episcopal Church we know and love and turn it into the idol of their own worshipping?

As a poster I once saw in the early 80s proclaimed: Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” He didn’t say, “Count them.”

Since when does the efficacy of the Christian message need to be quantified?

Oh but wait! There’s more!

You’ll want to know about the Scripture wars. And, of course, there are Scriptural wars.

It’s not just about homosexuality, you know.

Bennett quotes Paul’s first letter to Timothy to prove his point: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplication, prayers, intercessions, and giving of things, be made for all men; For kinds, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty . . . I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting.”

But it is Tom Starnes of Rehoboth Beach, a retired United Methodist minister, who advised those who advocate public prayer to read Jesus’ Sermon on the mount according to Matthew: “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men . . . But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

“Public prayer in general bothers me,” says Starnes. “People feel that school prayer in particular has a magical quality, that it can lend dignity to any event. Folks who wear their religions on their sleeves should ask themselves, have they fed the hungry? Clothed the naked? Visited prisoners in jail? Those are the things Jesus wanted us to do.”

Public prayer in general does not bother me.

Bigotry and prejudice in the guise of prayer does.

Oppression masquerading as Christian triumphalism and chauvinism does.

Using the charade of pious humility (“Praying is about giving yourself up . ..” quote Dr. Hattier above ) and then saying, “well, if you don’t like it here, go someplace else” does.

Attacking civil rights, religious freedom and the separation of church and state guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States in the name of “the war against terrorism” does.

Likewise, I am deeply, deeply troubled by an attack on the unfolding and continual revelation of God’s presence in scripture in the name of a defense against heresy.

Throughout this entire ordeal, the Dobrich family became increasingly isolated, the suit says. People “told the Dobriches that Sussex County was a Christian community and that if they did not like it, they should just move away.” (Sound familiar? How about ‘walk together or walk apart’?)”

“Alex’s schoolmates openly teased him, calling him ‘Jew boy.’” (Don’t get me started.)

Alex became increasingly fearful, the suit says. “The slightest unfamiliar noise terrified him, “the suit alleges. “He began to sleep in his mother’s room. Although he wore his yarmulke in his mother’s car, he would snatch it off his head whenever he spotted a police officer for fear that the officer would see it and pull the car over.”

Late in the summer of 2004, 13 year old Alex Dobrich and his mother left their home in Sussex County and moved to a rented apartment in Willmington. Alex now attends a private school in Pennsylvania.

I’m going to give Alex the final word.

At the August 24, 2004 school board meeting, after his mother spoke, Alex stood up to address the board. A person in the crowd – a school board supporter – saw Alex standing and, according to the lawsuit, shouted at him, “Take your yarmulke off!”

Alex, “attempted to speak but could not,” the complaint continues. “Samantha stood up, put her arm around him and read his prepared statement to the board:

My name is Alex Dobrich. I am in the sixth grade. I have gone to Indian River School District all of my life. I like it here and I like my neighbors. They are from Italy. They do not care that I am different. When they were sick my mom made them chicken soup.”

“Everyone should just try and do what we do. Just be nice to each other. It is fun to learn how different people do things. Please think about this when you plan things at school. People pray at home and in their head. That is what I do. Please follow the law.”

Can I get an ‘Amen’?

Note: Various local Delaware and Sussex County newspaper articles from a wide variety of sources were used in this essay.


Mike in Texas said...

Funny how it takes a Jewish schoolboy to remind Christians of what a revolutionary Jew once said about public prayer.

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Matthew 6:5-7

Suzer said...


Frair John said...


Ann said...

Actually the latest and more complete studies show no link or maybe even a negative effect of prayer on those who are sick.