.sqs-featured-posts-gallery .title-desc-wrapper .view-post

Praying in Public

By Vern Barnet


How can we honor diversity at moments of public reverence? While it is easy to enjoy friends of many religions in our neighborhoods and workplaces, how can we embrace people of different faiths when we are asked to offer an invocation or blessing at a public event, or when we select someone to offersuch remarks?  Prayers at public gatherings are common. Professional associations, volunteer agencies, service clubs, and legislative bodies often begin an event or meal with public prayer. As membership becomes more diverse, we may need to enlarge our understanding of how to be inclusive and effective. 

Why Pray in Public?

Prayer helps us to identify our motives, our pains, our cravings, and joys. As we come to know ourselves, we are changed beyond selfishness into harmony with those Presences from which we spring and to which we return. Prayer is not a request to shape the future to our desires, but a way for us to offer ourselves to the Larger Process. Martin Luther said that we pray not to instruct God but rather to instruct ourselves. Public prayer requires understanding the group on whose behalf one prays, and finding the words in which all can join in spirit. 

However, in our time, public prayer has been abused to make political statements and assert the primacy of one faith over others. The guidelines below seek open up the door of shared prayer in a way that respects us all and keeps us spiritually centered in this sacred practice.

Three Ways of Offering Respect

Vern Barnet gave the invocation and benediction at an interfaith observance convened by Congresswoman Karen McCarthy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, eight days after September 11, 2001.

Vern Barnet gave the invocation and benediction at an interfaith observance convened by Congresswoman Karen McCarthy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, eight days after September 11, 2001.

We don’t want to offend those of different faiths by offering invocations or blessings that exclude them, but ways of embracing everyone are not always obvious. Here are three methods that seem to recognize diversity. 

No prayers: You can eliminate prayers altogether. While no one is offended, neither is anyone blessed.

Traditional prayers: Those who pray in the style and tradition of their own faiths provide a personal focus and authenticity to the occasion. But for this to work, the group must understand that the prayer is an idiomatic act of devotion and that no one is expected to agree with or fully join in the specific manner or language being used on any particular occasion. Each person prays in his or her own idiom, hoping it will be understood and felt by the rest of us through the lens of our own discernment.

Over time, organizations using prayers from many traditions gain better understanding of the diverse ways the Infinite can be invoked.

However, members of the group inviting persons from various backgrounds need to practice the discipline of entering into the spirit of the prayer or meditation regardless of unfamiliar words, a strange language, or even concepts with which the members might personally disagree. Even when our religious perspectives are vastly different, we recognize that prayer is not a test of what we believe but rather an act of good will. 

Where I live, representatives of American Indian, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Sufi, Taoist, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, and Zoroastrian traditions and many more are available, as in most American cities today.

Inclusive prayers: While traditional prayers may require the group to stretch, inclusive prayers require the person offering the prayer to stretch, reaching for language large enough to include everyone in the group. Because group members want to join in the prayer and not be spectators of someone else’s prayer, terms specific to any one faith are avoided. The prayer is nonetheless genuine. Its authenticity arises from the confluence of many traditions, not just one. 

Where diversity is desired but not the primary purpose of the group, this inclusive method offers a kind of safety to visitors that does not require knowing about your group’s on-going series of prayers from different traditions.

Guidelines for Inclusive Prayer

How does one offer an inclusive prayer? Here are some suggestions and observations. 

  • Prayer in a public setting need not advocate personal beliefs. The leader should voice the aspirations of all present. By modeling respect for one another, a leader’s non-sectarian religious utterance can place the particular occasion in the largest spiritual context. 
  • Some situations may allow an inspirational reading instead of a prayer. A poem like “I thank You God for most this amazing” by e. e. cummings may be effective. 
  • Using the word God may exclude Buddhists, atheists, and others. Some consider terms like Lord patriarchal and too culture-bound to evoke a broad understanding of the sacred. God the “Father” is mandatory in some traditions, and suspect in others, while others call on a Father-Mother God or simply our Divine Parent. A poetic phrase may satisfy many people. For example, “Spirit of Love” can be meaningful both to a person of faith and an atheist.
  • If this phrase is followed by a brief description, the group can more easily focus on the special dimension of the sacred being addressed. In dedicating a new city hall, I opened with the phrase, “O Spirit of Generations,” followed by “who gives us a heritage of freedom and a city of enormous talent...” For a law school commencement, I began with “Sacred Vision of Justice,” followed by “revealed imperfectly in human law...” 
  • A statement of gratitude is always appropriate. 
  • Petitions may follow, but remember Emerson said, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious.”
  • Some like to close public prayers with “Peace” or “So let it be.”

Three Types of Gatherings

Imam Bilal Muhammed offering the Adhan, the Muslm call to prayer, at an interfaith service in Kansas City.

Imam Bilal Muhammed offering the Adhan, the Muslm call to prayer, at an interfaith service in Kansas City.

The role and nature of prayer needs to fit the purpose of the gathering and those who are participating in it.

  • Civil functions – A naturalization ceremony, a graduation at a public university, and a prayer before a legislative body require the greatest care to protect the American tradition of religious liberty, respecting each individual’s conscience. Children should be protected from any situation which might give the appearance of governmental sponsorship of prayer.
  • Social and civic occasions – Groups based in neither government nor religion, such as a professional association, a volunteer agency, or a service club, may have customary practices that may need to become more inclusive as membership becomes more diverse.
  • Religious meetings – An organization or event that explicitly embraces several faiths has two clear options. It may invite representatives of several traditions to pray in the manner of their own faiths. However, if only one person prays, say, for a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the prayer may either weave together elements of the several faiths — as in “We give thanks for teachers in our several traditions, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad” — or it may use only those elements common to those faiths — “God, who brings us this day . . . .” If non-theistic Buddhists, Jains, Humanists are with you, such an invocation might not be appropriate.

God and Other Terms of Address

Founders of the United States of America often used expressions such as Providence, Supreme Giver, Great Author of every public and private good, Invisible Hand, Patron of Order, Fountain of Justice, the Almighty, Creator, Supreme Judge, and so forth. It is of interest that the expression “God” does not appear in a presidential inaugural address until 1821, although “Nature's God” appears in the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

The Infinite can be named in all sorts of ways:   Spirit of Love – Source of all – All-encompassing Spirit – Spirit of Ongoing creation… You who are called by many names in many tongues in many lands: God and Goddess, Sat Nam, Tao, Wakan, Brahman, Adonai, Dharmadhatu, Allah, Kami …

And finally, let me add, that silence before and even during a public prayer can deepen its impact, giving people the spiritual space to absorb and be part of this public practice.

The following is a prayer I used at a Kansas City Rotary Club before a national election:

Spirit of Generations, 
who from ancient times has given us shapes like covenant, compact, and constitution
as means by which we may co-create a humane and prosperous society, 
we gather our thoughts as citizens of our community, Kansas, and the nation
as we prepare to exercise our vote. 
Bless all those willing to serve the public weal; 
and as we commit ourselves, 
may we support the process by which we choose our leadership, 
and participate in many ways in service above self. 

For more public prayers by Vern Barnet, click here.