By Eboo Patel - May 8 2009
Yesterday, the first Thursday in May, was the National Day of Prayer, observed privately by our President. Obama took a departure from Bush's practice of hosting a formal White House event, and instead issued a proclamation. He's getting a lot of heat for this, but I think his choice could point to something bigger: perhaps Obama is more focused on the good work people of faith are doing for this nation than the private prayer that inspires them to give back to their communities.
In his proclamation, President Obama called for the American people to come together and make change: "Our world grows smaller by the day, and our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife; and to lift up those who have fallen on hard times." The way that President Obama articulates the potential for faith communities to do good probably comes from the Chicago church which he attended for many years and where he first came to the Christian faith. The message of this church - the one that Obama carried with him to Washington - is that faith is more about what happens outside the church than inside it. And outside is a world of people who are tragically separated from each other. Faith is about bringing those people together, bridging those isolated communities, and working together.
In many ways, Obama's decision to forgo the ceremony of National Prayer Day gives us the space to think about what prayer inspires us to do in the world. His words point to how people of varied beliefs can join forces to better our common world and help one another.
Here is just one example. In a neighborhood of Chicago, Englewood, which has the highest incidence of lead poisoning in the country, a youth-led coalition is changing the conversation about what religious people can do together. A partnership formed between three organizations: a civic organization, Imagine Englewood IF, which is not religiously affiliated but is largely made of up of African-American Christian teenagers, the teenage social justice group of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and Catholic Visitation Scholarship, a Catholic high school. These young people educated themselves on lead poisoning, and then completed community wide education on the issue, including creating and distributing pamphlets to child care facilities and holding multiple lead awareness festivals, which serve as a safe place for young people to socialize and learn about lead poisoning, as well as offer lead poisoning testing for children. This local initiative accomplished something rare in Chicago: young people working together across socio-economic, religious and geographic divisions to address a major issue of concern.
Projects like this are happening around the country. Obama recognizes that faith is a deep motivator for service.(Youth who are devoted to their faith are twice as likely as those who are disengaged from congregations to volunteer or do community service.) I think that the more interesting story for the National Day of Prayer is not what is happening on a stage in DC, but what is happening at a local park in Ohio, a street in Chicago, or a school in California.
Eboo Patel has been appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Initiatives, where he is working to realize the President's priority of interfaith cooperation.