Some topics are so sensitive that most people avoid them in public, speaking of them only behind closed doors — and then in whispers. Prayer, or more precisely, the power of prayer, is one such subject.
I am reminded of this subject because during the last few weeks, the St. Petersburg Times has published several articles about local churches and religious organizations getting together to pray for causes such as reducing the number of murders in black neighborhoods and stemming the violence associated with drug trafficking.
On the night of May 1, for example, more than 1,000 people, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and other elected officials, gathered at the Gibbs High School football stadium to celebrate the National Day of Prayer and to ask God to help them eradicate crime, homelessness, poverty and unemployment. According to the Times, signs throughout the high school read: "Prayer! America's strength and shield."
During the event, the Rev. Clarence Williams offered this prayer: "Lord, there are so many problems. I know you know them all. Let us individually and collectively lift the mayor. I don't agree with him on everything, but I pray for him every night."
A 21-year-old woman said: "You have to put it all in God's hands. It seems we have tried everything else but prayer."
For his part, Baker, a true believer, spoke to the crowd in the language of prayer: "We have a great city, but we have a land that needs healing. I believe the best avenue of healing is truly the redemptive blood of my savior Lord Jesus Christ."
Whenever I hear of such public displays of prayerfulness, I wonder if people, especially blacks, truly believe that matters will improve simply because they prayed. Having grown up in a devout Christian family, in which everyone prayed every day, I have never seen any independent evidence that prayer works.
The same bad conditions that existed before prayer remained following prayer. I see the same pattern here in St. Petersburg: Black people invite the mayor, the police chief and other officials to their churches to pray for the elimination of, say, black-on-black homicide. A week later, yet another innocent black man is gunned down in his front yard. A month later, a teenage boy shoots another teen to death over a dispute no one can explain rationally. The next month, a woman is shot dead in her home when a stray bullet pierces her forehead.
And, yet, the prayers continue.
In his book, Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African-Americans, theologian James Melvin Washington writes that "African-Americans have believed fervently that prayer is a necessity in time of crisis. . . . Prayer is a conversation with God. God is a living, personal presence that is insinuated at all times and in all circumstances. . . . For me prayer is not a ritual. It is a mode of being."
Experience has taught me that, more often than not, prayer makes most supplicants intellectually lazy and dependent. Over the years, I have seen people pray and pray for this or that unrealistic outcome without lifting a substantive finger to organize a crime-watch group to monitor drug deals going down in their neighborhoods and report them to the police.
A Times article about the drug scene in Childs Park notes that an illegal teen club, next to Don's Barber Shop, was shut down because a shootout erupted during the club's grand opening. Later, dozens of teens filled the street, yelling and cursing, witnesses told the Times. No one, not a single person, called the police.
This is an example of where prayer has not and will not help. Sober, adult action is needed. Even I, a nonbeliever, know that if prayer is to work, it must be accompanied with elbow grease, the courage of one's convictions and clear thinking. Otherwise, prayer, no matter how plaintive, does not amount to a hill of beans.
Washington makes a similar point in Conversations with God: "I learned … that prayer is more than ordering from the menu of divinity, as if God is some cosmic waiter who serves us at our convenience."
Gathering in churches and football stadiums to pray en masse is fine. But prayer alone will not solve the kind of pathologies destroying many parts of black St. Petersburg. At one such event, pastors and parishioners gave St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon a list of 39 "hot spots" of crime and violence.
In his laconic way, Harmon said, "I don't think we are going to incarcerate our way out of this issue." Harmon also could have warned the faithful that we cannot pray our way out of drug trafficking and murder.