County joins in Day of Prayer

Believers: Howard clergy coordinate the local observances of a national event.

May 03, 2002|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As diners surveyed the lunch menu yesterday outside Clyde's restaurant overlooking the Columbia lakefront, 13 people stood in a semicircle nearby praying for the United States and its president. Their white sign and stirring songs invited passers-by to join them in the National Day of Prayer, an annual event conducted nationwide for five decades.

"I think prayer is so needed now for our country," said participant Kathy Brown, a secretary at Running Brook Elementary School. "Whenever believers gather together, it's a wonderful opportunity. I wish we could do it every day."

More than a dozen pastors coordinated Howard County's first cooperative observance. Prayers were said at the Omar Jones Plaza county office complex in Ellicott City, the People Tree at the Columbia lakefront and at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City.

"For God's people to get together to recognize his promise and our needs - in terms of the war on terrorism, Middle East crisis and moral and ethical issues - and to humble ourselves in asking to have mercy on us is very beautiful and very necessary," said Rev. Allen Harris, pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church. "We seek his face and not just arrogantly try to solve problems on our own."

Harris stressed that the assembly of ethnically diverse Christians from numerous denominations is more significant than the number of participants. "More important than the size of the group is the spirit," he said.

The National Day of Prayer was established in 1952 by Congress in a joint resolution signed by President Harry S Truman. "Prior to that, presidents called for a day of prayer and fasting during national emergencies," said Marcia Reinhart, Maryland coordinator for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, based in Colorado.

Locally, the cooperative observance was spearheaded by Dave Barkley, a parishioner of New Heritage Church in Ellicott City. "We were looking at ways to encourage prayer - for the nation and local community," he said.

Barkley is a member of Howard County Pray, a 3-year-old lay group for which he and his wife, Dorothy, are facilitators on the first Tuesday of each month. This year, the group is meeting at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia. Dave Barkley also participates in Pastors Pray, a group organized in 1984 by Harris with other members of the clergy. The group, which includes 60 county pastors and some lay people, meets and prays every third Thursday - this year at Calvary Community Ministry Center in Columbia.

They first pray for Howard County, keeping abreast of issues by checking in with the county executive, police chief and school superintendent. The group then prays for the needs of local churches and pastors.

"Last year, we thought about how to get the prayer out of a building and into the public arena," said Barkley. "There are a lot of people open to receiving God who never go inside a church, and we wanted to demonstrate to them there is a God who cares."

In August, Howard County Pray coordinated a prayer booth at the Howard County Fair. Sponsored by Pastors Pray, the booth was manned by 34 parishioners from seven congregations offering to pray for anyone in need. "We accepted no money, and we didn't ask them to join a church. All we asked was for the opportunity to bless them," Barkley said.

The Howard services addressed 10 prayer topics, including prayers for national repentance; "godly wise" leadership; county police and firefighters; county youth and teachers; and unity. "The idea is that Jesus has only one church," Barkley said.

But organizers rejected critics' claims that the event blurs the line between church and state and is exclusionary because it targets evangelical Christians.

"The idea of praying for the nation is never anything that went against the Constitution," said the Rev. Mark Teasdale, pastor of Rockland United Methodist Church in Ellicott City.

Teasdale argued that the event tends to draw those comfortable with public prayer, such as evangelical Christians, while interfaith prayer would dilute the service.

"You can work together to feed the hungry, but prayer is not as easily merged," he said. "We do have different beliefs and that comes out in your prayer. Our prayer has to follow the core tenets of our faith.

"To preserve the integrity of the various religions, you have to pray separately. Otherwise, we would end up with a very ambiguous God."

At Omar Jones Plaza, office workers stopped by briefly to join the 16 people who sang and prayed. "This did its job," Teasdale said.

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