How prayer inspires action and creates unity in interfaith organizations
The prayer leader always begins the invocation with "From my faith tradition ," addressing the men and women gathered for a Together Colorado meeting. What follows will vary, but the ritual is the same: a faithful person offering a prayer from his or her own perspective to a diverse, but united, crowd.
"We always begin and end with some type of prayer," said Sharon Bridgeforth, the board president of Together Colorado. "We have to be really prepared both mentally and spiritually to go in and try to combat whatever we want to stop or start."
For Bridgeforth, prayer is a centering exercise, focusing participants on political issues the group tackles like immigration reform and affordable health care. According to a new study published by the American Sociological Review, prayer is also one of the ways that faith-based community organizing coalitions like Together Colorado navigate the challenges stemming from racial and socioeconomic differences among members.
"There are a lot of benefits associated with organizational diversity," said Ruth Braunstein, one of the study's authors, naming political legitimacy and enhanced creativity as key examples. "But there are also a lot of challenges and conflicts that might arise," she continued. "Prayer helps to mitigate challenges."
Unity through prayer
Braunstein, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, said that unifying volunteers through prayer might seem counterintuitive, given that FBCOs are as religiously diverse as they are racially and socioeconomically divided.
The study, however, determined that prayer is a "bridging cultural practice" in faith-based community organizing, serving as "a key mechanism through which diverse organizations navigate challenges generated by internal differences."
Bridgeforth confirmed that communal prayer helps Together Colorado's volunteers get to know one another. "What makes our organization unique is that we develop relationships with one another," she said. "It cuts across socioeconomics; it cuts across race; it cuts across faith. We're in relationship with one another. If you're hurting, I'm hurting."
Together Colorado is diverse enough to require interpreters at its events. A gathering of clergy this spring included imams, rabbis and representatives of many Christian denominations. Bridgeforth is confident that it is shared faith, reinforced by activities like communal prayers, that nurtures unity among volunteers.
A 2012 study from Braunstein's co-authors, Richard Wood and Brad Fulton, reported that FBCOs are more diverse than other comparable organizations. "Over 50 percent of FBCO coalition board members are non-white, whereas only 19 percent of all nonprofit board members in the United States and 13 percent of Fortune 500 board members are non-white."
Faced with this level of internal diversity, leaders realize that it's not just the act of praying that unifies, but how the prayer is crafted. Meaningful interfaith prayer celebrates shared faith rather than highlighting divisive ideas.
"It's an organic process," said Rabbi Ron Symons. "We lift up the similarities that inspire us to work together. Isn't that what prayer is all about?"
Symons is clergy caucus president of the Chicago-based Gamaliel network, which provides leadership training and supports national social justice campaigns.
He said that praying with clergy members from other faith traditions "taught him how to use faith as a motivation for civic change."
Although there is no formula for crafting appropriate interfaith prayers, Symons believes that prayer leaders need only to use common sense to be as inclusive as possible.
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