Praying at the White House
by Rev. Dr. Terry LePage
Little did I know when I followed my husband’s temporary job to the Washington D.C. area that life would become so interesting. I could take my political protests right to the National Mall in 30 minutes: so conveniently situated to join the January 21 D.C. Women’s March. (I never expected that the D.C. participants would be outnumbered by those back in Los Angeles, or that even my son’s friend in Lusaka, Zambia, would join 200 other protesters there.)
At the Women’s March I heard many people expressing what I was feeling: fear for the soul of our nation, desire to take action for justice and human rights, and confusion over which steps we could take to make a difference. But I didn’t hear anybody proposing to do what comes naturally to me in such situations: pray! “God, how can I make a difference?” I prayed over the next few days. And the answer I got (whether from divine inspiration or reflective intuition, one never quite knows) was: pray!
What came to mind was a type of prayer I had learned twenty-five years before from Rev. George McClain, the longtime head of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. “Public exorcism” he called it, with a wink. As part of McClain’s support for openly gay United Methodist clergy, he would perform this prayer in the church hall where their vocational future was to be decided at a church trial the following day: “Spirit of bigotry be gone from this place. Spirits of hatred and fear, be gone from this space (etc.) Spirit of love, fill this place. Spirit of justice, fill this space (etc.) Spirit of Jesus Christ, we claim this space for you. In your mercy and your power, rule here.” I wanted to pray that way at the White House, because to do so confronts the warped spirituality, the twisted beliefs and bankrupt morality which are at the root of the actions which so alarm me. Walter Wink, in his classic Engaging the Powers (1), described it this way:
“Prayer is not just a two-way transaction. It also involves the great socio-spiritual forces that preside over so much of reality. I am speaking of the massive institutions and social structures and systems that dominate our world today, and of the spirituality at their center…
“Intercession is spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current contradictory forces…
“The message is clear: history belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. This is not simply a religious statement. It is as true of communists or capitalists or anarchists as it is of Christians. The future belongs to whoever can envision in the manifold of its potentials a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.”
In short, “This is the politics of hope. Hope envisages its future and then acts as if that future is now irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs.”
I knew better than to do this work alone. I took my plan to a remarkable weekend conference a few miles from D.C.0-= called “Sister Giant” (2), hosted by Marianne Williamson. I had expected Sister Giant to be full of New Thought spirituality with a little politics; it turned out to be a detailed political primer with a light seasoning of New Thought inspiration. So timely! (Look for it in L.A. next winter.) And I prayed for collaborators. At every break, I walked up to strangers, inviting them to become White House pray-ers. The 1500 or so participants had come from all fifty states. Alas, few I met lived within commuting distance to the White House. But a young woman from northern Virginia gave me the funniest look when I told her my scheme. “I’ve been praying about how to make a difference,” she said (as indeed Marianne had challenged all attendees to do.) “And what I heard was, ‘pray at your house.’ I didn’t realize ‘my house’ was the White House!” Thus I found my prayer partner, Rachael.
As I crafted our prayers, I was forced to examine my motives. By chance, or something more, I received a “confession” (that happens to ministers sometimes) from a moderate Republican woman. While she hadn’t voted for Trump, she needed to release her fears about immigration and terrorism (so different from my own fears!) and her bitterness toward the liberals she worked with who berated and belittled her (and sometimes benched her) for her politics. In return, she graciously agreed to review my planned White House prayers. Once I realized that I could only pray for the White House what I was willing to pray for myself and my own home, though, I really didn’t need the cross-check.
Rachael and I put the word out on Facebook, to some local United Church of Christ (UCC) churches, and to some justice organizations in the D.C. area. We met Mondays at the noon hour in Lafayette Park, just outside the chain link fence that enclosed the White House and the inaugural bandstand that never seemed to come down. A few people who knew me from Bethel UCC and Rock Spring Congregational UCC joined us. Others with commitments elsewhere participated via remote prayer at the appointed time. Passers-by asked questions. We chatted up other picketers. Rachael chased her kids around the park. Little Emma and Bennett loved praying, despite the challenges they posed to their mom’s efforts. Week after week, we prayed. We sang. I cried. (3) And we prayed some more.
Then I was off to California for two weeks, and Rachael was left with two preschoolers and no other committed collaborator. Just in time, I heard several activists explain that rallies and the like were becoming old news; one has to mix up strategies to keep being noticed. Prayer will never be passé, but we don’t have to schlep the preschoolers to the White House every week. Rachael and I are crafting our next strategy for action. And praying in our own homes. Emma and Bennett want us to go back to the White House soon, though.
I know the power of symbolic action. “Your prayers haven’t worked,” commented one cynic. “I know they’ve worked on me,” I replied. I have been awakened to the enormity of injustice and brutality in our country, and only a vital connection with the sacred can give me the hope I need to persevere in working for justice. Wink’s intercessory prayer and McClain’s exorcism remind me of the forces at work for good and for ill in the White House, forces larger than any person or organization. My heart has opened toward at least a few of the people in that building. Friends in California and friends on Facebook have told me how much it meant to them that I was right there in front of the White House, praying what was in their hearts. Who knows what else our prayers have accomplished.
And we will not stop praying.
(1) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in an Age of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992.
(2) See http://sistergiant.com for links to speakers and streaming audio.
Here are the prayers we have been praying. They work long distance too.
A Prayer of Cleansing and Blessing
Spirits of fear and hatred, be gone
from ourselves and our homes,
from this White House,
and from our country.
Spirits of xenophobia and authoritarianism, be gone
Spirits of greed and selfishness, be gone
Spirits of division and lies, be gone
Spirits of love and generosity, fill
us and our homes,
this White House,
and our whole country.
Spirits of wisdom and faith, fill
Spirits of peace and justice, fill
Spirits of unity and respect, fill
Spirits of integrity and truth, fill
Holy Spirit of the living God: fill us, and fill this White House, and all our government.
We claim it for good, for all Americans, and for people around the world.
We trust in Your power to make it so.
And we pledge to do our part, relying on your inspiration and power. Amen.
A Prayer for our Country
God of love and justice,
We give thanks for this great country.
We give thanks for the brave men and women who founded it
on principles of liberty and equality, opportunity, justice, and the common good.
We give thanks for all the blessings you have given us
through this beloved country.
God, we are deeply troubled. We fear for our country.
We ask your help as we now would be brave;
Raising our voices to call our beloved country to its founding ideals.
And trusting that with your help, we will make a difference.
We repent of our past apathy to injustice and suffering.
We offer you any intolerance and selfishness
that separates us from you and from this holy purpose.
We rely on your forgiveness and your healing power.
We call upon on your presence and your Spirit, O God,
To put love in our hearts and justice in our actions.
We ask you to unleash your power in the highest halls of government,
That your will be done here and now, and throughout our country.
That our leaders act with courage and honesty and wisdom.
That self-serving influences and industries be stripped of their power.
That people of good faith work together to heal divisions.
And that people of every religion, race, language, and culture be respected.
Preserve the rule of law;
Laws to protect the vulnerable, not just the powerful.
Let those who work for good government not work in vain;
Allow them to bless us with their wholehearted contributions.
Help this nation to be true to you, O God,
a model of love and justice for all people. Amen.