During the week I was on my seven day silent retreat, several pivotal world events occurred: the Supreme Court decisions preserving the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage; the coordinated bombings in France, Tunisia and Kuwait; Pres. Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and the burning of seven African-American churches in South Carolina. Given that I had set aside this time to pray and reflect, I gave these events a dedicated time each day for prayer. However, the issue that consumed most of my attention then and still now was and is the budget negotiations in Harrisburg regarding the proposed increase in funding for public education (which the Democrats and governor proposed and to date the Republicans have opposed).
I was specifically focused on this issue because I knew that while I was at the Retreat Center, fifteen folks had dedicated themselves to fast and maintain a presence on the Capitol steps for the ten days from June 20 to June 30 promoting the adoption of a fully funded formula for public education in Pennsylvania. A few months earlier, I had been part of a group that had developed the idea of a 100 day “Fast for Family Values” across the state, and then worked on the idea of a “Moral Takeover” in Harrisburg focused on a 10 day fast in the final days of the budget negotiations. I had joined about 150 others on June 20 initiating the fast, as we anointed the Capitol doors and laid hands literally and figuratively on the “Harrisburg 15” who would maintain a constant presence on the Capitol steps. During the ten days various groups came each day to support the fasters, but because of my prior commitment to the retreat, I was not among them.
Having been part of the planning up to that point, I was upset and troubled that I was not able to be to support them. As an alternative, I dedicated myself to pray for the fasters and for the negotiations each day. On the retreat grounds was a labyrinth. I didn’t know much about the tradition of praying a labyrinth, nor had I ever done it before in any sort of serious way. The labyrinth is a sort of maze on the ground, which is a tool for prayer and meditation used by many religious traditions. As one author says: “Walking the labyrinth is a way of praying with the body that invites the divine presence into an active conversation with the heart and soul. By engaging in this walking meditation, we are fully engaging our minds, bodies, and spirits at the same time.” On a few evenings I walked the labyrinth thinking of the budget negotiations and praying the words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” What struck me was that just as the labyrinth was circuitous route from the outside of the circle to the center, so too the ways of God usually do not
follow a straight path and often surprise us when our prayers are answered.
At other times I physically pointed my body in the direction of Harrisburg, even holding out my hands, seeking to reach out to the Capitol with longing and intention. In the morning and again at evening I read the latest news on the negotiations and added that information to my prayers. On a few occasions, I broke my internet silence enough to shoot off a brief email to my legislators, one of whom is the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and therefore a key player in the ongoing budget discussions. All in all I felt at one with the fasters and others advocating and protesting at the Capitol even though I was over 50 miles away.
All of this got me thinking about the power of prayer and the power of politics. Given the choice between joining in a protest or a march versus praying, I would always choose the former, so praying at a distance was different place for me. However, the more I prayed the more emboldened and hopeful I became, and I came to believe that however circuitous the route, justice for the school children of the state and of Philadelphia in particular would prevail. How I didn’t know, but it would prevail.
In their book Faith-Rooted Organizing authors Peter Heltzel and Alexia Salvatierra write “In faith-rooted organizing, we believe we can answer the question, ‘How do we want the world to be different because of our efforts?’ by casting a common vision rooted in God’s vision” (p. 29). Drawing from the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, liberation theologians and others who rooted their protest in their faith, these authors challenge people of faith to use the tools of faith and their inherent trust in the God of justice to work for positive social change. Those of us involved in the fight for educational justice had done just that in calling for a fast, anointing the Capitol doors, laying hands on the faster and maintaining a prophetic presence. From afar, I was doing the same thing with my labyrinth walks and prayers toward the Capitol. In so doing I felt I was engaging the issue not just at the level of politics, but at the level of what the apostle Paul called “the principalities and powers” (Romans 8) undergirding the political system.
On one level, one might say, “Who are you kidding? Political power will win every time over praying.” Yet I don’t know. I remember Cory Aquino and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines when in 1986 masses of people marching and praying peacefully brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. I have read of Cesar Chavez’s fast for farmworker justice. I have read of the powerful transformation that took place in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Maybe prayer and spiritual power is more than we, at least I, think it is. As I write this, there has been no dramatic change in state funding for education, yet for the first time in a long time, I have begun to feel that the sacrificial power of prayer could win the day, and persistent work backed and accompanying prayer might just prove to be too much for legislators to ignore. We can only wait and see, and of course, pray.
[Pictures by the Author; Labyrinth from Google Images looked very much like the labyrinth I walked]