Privilege and Prayer

Two weeks ago I was contacted by a member of a local church.  She had been asked by her pastor to call around several churches and pastors to see if they would have an interest in coming together to have a time of prayer.  The pastor had been led to initiate this in the wake of another fatal shooting in our local town, which had happened just a few weeks before. The plan was to have a planning and information meeting the next day and then bring folks together 10 days later for a prayer walk through the area where the shooting took place to the local park and then have a small gathering for more prayer there.  This is the kind of unity I love to work in and so I readily agreed to attend the meeting and the gathering.

When I got to the meeting it became very clear to me, very quickly that I was the only caucasian in the room.  I knew that the church which had contacted me initially was indeed an African-American church.  I also knew that the area of town we had been invited to walk through was an area predominantly populated by the African American community.  I had no problem with this whatsoever, in fact, as I have mentioned above, this is the kind of unity that I love to work in – the unity that brings people across the divides that have historically been created.  So we planned and we discussed and everyone had their say.  Then we agreed upon when and where we would meet.

The gathering took place just last Saturday.  I met with my new friends and we walked the 1.6 miles from the scene of the shooting to the park.  The walk took place in silence as everyone brought their own prayers and intercessions before God; praying for the community, for the homes, for the individuals we walked past; for the groups that were gathered in the various places we walked past.  I was walking through an area of town that I have not been in during the two years that i have lived here.  In contrast to the cosmetically pristine places where i live and work, I was walking past condemned buildings, houses that were in disrepair, yet still were lived in, pieces of land that were littered with trash and broken glass.  All the way along, I was aware that this was a new place for me; a place which my privileged life does not normally take me to.

When we got to the park we gathered under the gazebo there.  The plan which had been agreed was to let every pastor who was there pray for around 3 minutes.  This would not be a problem for me – I know how to pray and I knew what I wanted to pray about.  There was no order.  We were just going to get up and gather as we were called upon.  The pastor who had had the vision for the whole event was the first to take the microphone.  As she began to speak, I started to understand that what we were being asked to do was to say a few words and then lead people in prayer.  As she began to speak and pray, I began to recognize that familiar style, which the African-American Christian tradition is famous for – the passionate and zealous proclamation of Scripture, the literal crying out to God for something to give, and for things to change, the deep breath taken before each phrase is spoken. The gathered group were active in encouraging the speakers with their cries of “Amen!,” the loud noises of affirmation and agreement, and their continuous claps of applause and loud cheers of solidarity with what was being spoken.  There was life and vitality and hunger and even a sense of desperation in both the speaking/praying and the actions of the listeners.  It is a style which is completely foreign to me and yet also completely attractive to me; a style which causes a sort of spiritual envy within me: why can’t I preach and pray like this?

My turn came. I was the third one to take the microphone.

“My name is Charlie.  I am a pastor of a Methodist Church here in town, and I guess i am the only Irish guy here today…”

They laughed with me in appreciation of the way I had pointed out the very obvious difference between the rest of the group and myself.  I spoke for a few minutes and then led the people in prayer.  By contrast to what had already been said and done, my prayers were timid in volume and presentation.  By no means would I say that they were any less genuine – my heart was in tune with all the cries of the other prayers.  But they were certainly offered in a different manner.

As I listened to all the prayers being prayed and the words being preached, i began to recognize a significant difference.  For me, the significance of the gathering was in the reconciling, and the breaking down of barriers; that I was a white Irishman praying in unity with group of African Americans.  That wall which still remains between those two groups had another couple of bricks removed from its structure.  But for the others who were gathered, this thing was not about the ministry of reconciliation primarily.  The gathering was intended to be a gathering of prayer for the community, a calling out on behalf of a community which is ravaged with drug addiction, poverty, unemployment, broken family life and an undercurrent of hopelessness.  This is what the church in that community was crying out for: praying for prostitutes to be restored in dignity and set free from the need to sell themselves; praying for addicts and dealers who are so caught up in that life that there seems to be no escape for them or their community from it; for fathers that are not with their children; for mothers that don’t care for their children; for men to be good men, righteous men, responsible men; for women to seek holiness and righteousness for themselves and their community.  As I heard the prayers of my brothers and sisters, I realized that i do not pray into these issues with the same passion and hunger because these issues are ones are not in my face or the face of my community on a day to day basis.  When I hear of a community ravaged by crime and addiction and social breakdown, my response is to sympathetically shake my head and wonder how and why things like this happen.  The truth is that i have not walked a mile in the shoes of those who struggle in these ways.  I have grown up and lived in communities where this has not been a part of day to day life. While I have worked in such areas and certainly seen the struggle of some people in those areas, I feel bereft of the ability to practically help them.

I realized something on Saturday and Sunday as I reflected on this: Because of my privilege and relative lack of life impact due to these things, my prayers are not prayed with the same zeal and desperation as those whose lives are impacted daily by them. For sure, I pray into social issues in a generic way, but I would be lying if I said that I was moved so much that I would be literally crying out on behalf of a community.

I also realized that it is likely that not only is this true for me, but it is also true for my church.  I am the pastor of a reasonably well off, middle class church.  The community in which we are situated is not short on its own problems, but neither does it have the prevalence of social issues like what i have mentioned above.  We not only struggle to get people to pray collectively, but when we do get them, our prayers are very ordered and  timid; empty of zeal and desperation and in stark contrast to the prayers of my friends who are ministering in the African-American community.

Is it possible that our privilege and our wealth has emptied our prayers of any real hunger and sense of desperation? Is it possible that as reasonably wealthy people we have become so self sufficient that we don’t pray out of a need for God anymore and actually pray more out of a sense of religious habit and duty?

Where is the hunger?

Where is the zeal?

Where is the passion and desperation in our calls for God to move?

Truly, they seem to be absent among me and the people I serve in the reasonably well off, middle class church.

And if this is true, what is to be done about it to see an appropriate and effective change in our lives with God.