On Monday, May 5, a few hours after the Supreme Court ruled to permit prayer at local government meetings, thereby opening another large hole in America’s rather porous wall between church and state, a modest crowd gathered in the pews of Pine Street Presbyterian, in downtown Harrisburg, to chip away at the barriers between church and church.
The occasion was the 6th Annual Commonwealth Interfaith Prayer Service, an event that celebrates, as a promotional flyer put it, the “rich diversity of faith traditions in Pennsylvania.” Among the participants, in addition to the home-team Presbyterians, were representatives of the Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faiths, a Roman Catholic, an Old Catholic, a Methodist, a Quaker, a Unitarian, a Mormon, a Baptist, two members of the Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is of Harrisburg and a Buddhist priest from the Blue Mountain Lotus Society.
Pine Street’s nave was hung with white felt banners—“VICTORY OVER DEATH,” “HE IS RISEN.” As people filed in, Scott Siciliano, with the Colonial Park United Church of Christ, played hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth” on a wooden harp. Dr. Russell Sullivan, Pine Street’s pastor, offered a word of welcome, beginning with the announcement of an offering for Downtown Daily Bread and a warning about parking. “And now it is a pleasure to introduce to you two public servants who are committed to interfaith dialogue,” he said. Eric Papenfuse, mayor of Harrisburg, and George Hartwick III, Dauphin County commissioner, took their positions at the lecterns flanking the altar.
Papenfuse spoke first, saying he was “particularly moved” by the night’s theme, “Prayers for Justice and Peace.” “Pray that we seek to inspire a new atmosphere of civility in our communities and that we commit to treat each other with love and respect,” he urged. (At a City Council meeting the next night, as if to demonstrate this petition’s urgency, one of the mayor’s senior officials engaged in a public spat with the council president, while Papenfuse shook his head in a seat nearby.) He requested prayers for peaceful streets and for justice “that provides comfort for those who have suffered,” building to a characteristically ambitious conclusion: “May our united prayers bless our city, envelop our people and ignite a spiritual renaissance to make our capital a model of hope for the entire nation.”
Hartwick, who had been chatting genially with a constituent in the pews up until the service began, said the event showed “how through example we can start to rally around the fundamental principles which underlie each of our religions.” He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness does not drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Then, after a pocketful of “whereas” clauses, he proclaimed the day—“May 5, Cinco de Mayo”—as the “6th Annual Prayers for Justice and Peace Day in Dauphin County.”
The public servants dismounted and headed for the pews. Rabbi Carl Choper, the president of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania, spoke about “how wondrous” it was that the prayer service was “here at all.” “Many people might take our ability to gather here like this in one room very much for granted,” he said. He recalled learning in elementary school about the 1649 Maryland Act of Religious Toleration. “Only as an adult,” he said, “did I learn that what was presented to us students as an ‘act of toleration’ called in its first article for toleration of anyone who accepted the Trinity, and the death penalty for everyone else.”
The final word of welcome came from the Rev. Sandra Strauss, one of the event’s organizers and its media contact. Strauss is the director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, one of the interfaith service’s founding sponsors. A perusal of the links on the council’s public advocacy website, under the heading TAKE ACTION!, gives a sense of its concerns—the gas and oil industries, women’s rights, education, torture and especially poverty. “The purpose is not really to lobby,” she said later. “It’s to get people to take action based on their faith.”
“It seems like only yesterday when a small group of intrepid folks passionate about interfaith relationships gathered around a table…to attempt to pull off an ambitious interfaith service around the theme of justice and peace,” she said from the lectern. The first event, though a success, “only scratched the surface of the richness that exists in our many traditions.” In subsequent years, the group sought additional sponsors and yet more diverse prayer traditions. “And so, here we are again,” Strauss concluded. “A tapestry woven together by our common bond of humanity and the shared hope for a better world.”
“Amen,” said a few folks in the pews. Then, quite suddenly, from the back of the church, came a series of low, twanging strikes on a drum. People turned to see a barefoot man in a white robe processing up the aisle, a stole draped over his shoulders bearing images of dragonflies. This was the Oshō Geoffrey Dunaway, of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society, which follows in the tradition of socially engaged Buddhism. He approached a small shrine on the altar, chanting, and then conducted a short ceremony to, as he explained later, “open the altar space.” He sprinkled water from a pine sprig in each of the cardinal directions, then lit incense and rang a bell, while a photographer who had accessed a loft space took photos from above.
Following the procession was a series of invocations from the Abrahamic faiths: a Jewish call to worship, blown on a shofar, an instrument traditionally made from the horn of a ram; a Christian call to worship; and an Islamic call to prayer. Ahmad Bhatti, of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on Division Street, gave the latter from the lectern, hands cupped around his ears, palms outward, singing in a faintly nasal meandering melody.
Then came a sequence of prayers, songs, narrations and group responses that bore witness to the remarkable variety of the service’s more than 30 co-sponsors. A choir from the Metropolitan Community Church, on Jefferson Street near Italian Lake, sang a version of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Ashok Shukla, of the Hindu American Religious Institute, delivered a mantra: “May there be peace, peace, perfect peace.” The Market Square Ringers, a bell choir from Market Square Presbyterian, played a lovely song called “Celebration and Grace,” brass bells flashing in their black gloves. Penbrook United Church of Christ’s Rebecca Boone, constrained to a chair by a sprained ankle, offered a waist-up liturgical dance to James Taylor’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” (Before this, there was even a nod to Nietzsche, who wrote he would “believe only in a God that knows how to dance”—or, at least, who wrote that so spake Zarathustra.)
Dave Johnston, of the Harrisburg Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, which convenes each Sunday in a meetinghouse at the corner of N. 6th and Herr, provided a meditation on what you might call supplication by subtraction. “We sit in silence,” Johnston said of Quaker prayer, “and if we’re moved to speak, we speak.” He asked the assembled to pause with him for a few moments’ silence, during which all the mostly missed noises came suddenly in range of hearing: the roar of one’s own thoughts, the pew-wood clicking.
At the end of the service, after a warm benediction by the Rev. Dr. James Jackson of Goodwin Memorial Baptist on Green Street, Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Uptown’s Beth El Temple strummed a guitar and sang “Oseh Shalom.” The prayerful dispersed from the pews, some to heed Sullivan’s warning about the garages, others for refreshments at a reception behind the sanctuary. This was the best part of the event, Strauss said later: “It’s seeing all of these people from different faith traditions, different color, different dress, talking after the service.”
“Every time we pray, our horizon is altered,” the Most Rev. Michael Scalzi of the mid-Atlantic diocese of the Old Catholic Church narrated at one point in the service. He was quoting the Scottish evangelist Oswald Chambers on the virtues of prayer, but he may as well have been extolling the virtues of a diverse society. “Our attitude to things is altered, not sometimes but every time. And the amazing thing is that we don’t pray more.”