U.S. soldiers were fighting in Korea when President Harry S. Truman signed a congressional resolution calling for an annual National Day of Prayer. The purpose was for people to gather in houses of worship to pray for world peace, according to an Associated Press report from April 17, 1952.
Since 1988 the event has taken place on the first Thursday in May, diligently observed by some churches, ignored by others. The 70th edition this week comes after a year wracked by a devastating pandemic, political polarization and turmoil related to racial injustice.
President Joe Biden, in a proclamation declaring Thursday to be the National Day of Prayer, said prayers could help America overcome these adversities.
“As we continue to confront the crises and challenges of our time — from a deadly pandemic, to the loss of lives and livelihoods in its wake, to a reckoning on racial justice, to the existential threat of climate change — Americans of faith can call upon the power of prayer to provide hope and uplift us for the work ahead,” he said.
Several faith leaders spoke to the AP about lessons learned from the recent challenges and about their prayers for the days ahead.
The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, whose Middle Collegiate Church in New York City was gutted by fire Dec. 5, said she’ll share a prayer for the nation and the world with her multicultural congregation that goes beyond denominations and religion, what she called “a prayer to love, for love.”
She’s inviting people to pray for an end to the pandemic as well as the rebuilding of her historic church in lower Manhattan.
Lewis called it “a powerful symbol that the nation would pray on the same day at the same time.” Yet she said that despite the day’s nonpartisan nature, “it hasn’t felt free of partisan politics in the last few years.”
Citing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol as a low point, Lewis said, “My prayer is that we can bounce from that place to a place where the nation’s children belong to all of us … where policing and safe communities are issues that belong to all of us. That disrupting racism belongs to all of us. An economy in which everyone can eat and be well and safe and have housing.”
In Brazoria, Texas, about 50 miles southwest of Houston, John Elkins said he and most of his congregation at Sovereign Grace Fellowship pray daily, which colors his view of the National Day of Prayer.
“It’s when the rest of the nation gets on board with what we’re already doing,” the Southern Baptist pastor said. “We get excited. But we know that on Friday, much of the nation isn’t going to be praying.”
As for his own prayers, Elkins said a central aspiration is that people “begin to interact with each other with a love for humanity.”
“What we saw in the last year was a lack of people looking at their neighbors as human and a lot more of looking at their neighbors as though they were in competition or they were the enemy,” he said. “We have seen the divisions manifest and multiply — people grabbing hold of things that were not true, or that they wish were true, and clinging to those things.”