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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.

"The most important themes (for interfaith prayer) are that all humans are created equal, created in God's image, and deserve equal access to opportunity," he said. "When you start there, the sky's the limit."

Potential for exclusion

Despite its unifying power, interfaith prayer also has the potential to cause controversy, as was evident in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Lutheran pastor Rob Morris was sanctioned for participating in a community prayer vigil that included Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy. Morris' Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod does not allow pastors to pray with leaders of other denominations due to theological differences.

"It's not the first time a Missouri Synod pastor has been reprimanded for joining an interfaith prayer service; a New York pastor also was suspended for participating in an interfaith service after the 9/11 terrorist attacks," Religion News Service reported.

In the study's conclusion, researchers noted that, while prayer can be a tool to bridge differences in a diverse group, the practice can also leave some people feeling left out or offended when the mix of people includes those not motivated by faith.

"Indeed, a group's use of interfaith prayer practices tacitly limits participants to those who are comfortable with such practices," the researchers wrote.

Membership in FBCOs is primarily drawn from politically minded congregations that may also partner with schools or labor unions equally invested in the issues being addressed.

"In those cases," where some participants represent non-religious organizations, "people tend to be creative in finding ways to be inclusive (with prayers,)" Braunstein said. "One thing that you sometimes hear is 'people of faith and people of good faith.' It's a way of expanding the boundaries of that category."

Merrimack Valley Project leaders begin meetings with a prayer even when participants are drawn from area labor unions. Rosemarie Buxton, first vice president of the coalition, was even asked to offer an invocation at this year's Merrimack Valley Labor Council annual legislative breakfast.

"I've had my own ministry acknowledged more in this group than in my own denomination," she said.

The study urges other kinds of diverse organizations to consider how bridging cultural practices could strengthen relationships between members. If interfaith prayer is not an option, these groups could share meals or form book clubs. "These activities, like the prayer practices we analyzed, emphasize enacting shared identities through collective practices that are meaningful for diverse participants," the researchers explained.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said that his organization's broad diversity means that prayer is too complicated to navigate. IFYC membership includes religiously unaffiliated and atheists, as well as representatives of Hinduism, which is generally understood as a polytheistic religion.

"At Interfaith Youth Core, we won't do a communal prayer. What we do is invite people to offer their expressions of prayer," he said. "We try to be clear that this is, for the individual, an important form of expression. For some people in the audience, it will constitute worship, for others it will be education, and for some it will be about deepening friendship. But for others it may be something they can't participate in for religious reasons. Interfaith groups have to be sensitive."

IFYC focuses instead on the participants' shared commitment interfaith cooperation. The organization's website explains that IFYC works to support "common action for the common good."

"The unifier that the Interfaith Youth Core tends to use is the unifier of service to others," Patel said. "That's a deep value across religious and secular traditions."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas