I did something on Thursday that was modest, but affirming. I joined the Interfaith Alliance of Central California (IACC) in participating in the 'National Day of Prayer' downtown, in front of Fresno's City Hall. As we gathered, we were mindful of the fact that we were there to participate and as a witness to the diversity of faiths in Fresno County. We were not there to be disruptive or critical. We were there to pray.
Still, despite these reminders, many of us in the back of our minds harbored apprehension, because none of us were evangelical Christians, and virtually everyone else at this celebration would be such, since the 'National Day of Prayer' has been an almost exclusively evangelical Christian love-fest locally and in much of the rest of the country. This has happened due to the activity of an evangelical organization called the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and it has drawn the ire of groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
And, deservedly so, since the National Day of Prayer was originally established by President Truman's 1952 proclamation as a day of prayer for all Americans, of all faiths. But that's not what has happened in Fresno County since the days that Jim Patterson (owner of a Christian radio station) became mayor back in 1993. Evangelical Christians have pretty much controlled the political apparatus of the city, and during that time the National Day of Prayer has become, increasingly, an opportunity for the politicians to demonstrate their faith in that particular brand of Christianity.
And, despite the fact that there were numerous denominations involved, the event we attended was really about that brand. The largest Christian denomination in Fresno County by far is the Roman Catholic Church, which in the year 2000 had more than twice as many adherents as all evangelical denominations combined, as seen here. And yet, there was not a single Catholic priest, nun or lay person who spoke and none in evidence at the event. The Catholics, it seems, were not invited, either.
Well, the viewpoint of IACC is not to deny either the Catholics or the evangelicals pride of place in the local hegemony, merely that the event should be open to participation by all Americans, of all faiths. And so we held signs saying, 'One Nation, Many Faiths' and as a group trucked over from where we gathered (a garden gazebo on the grounds of Fresno Community Hospital) towards Fresno's City Hall. The weather was lovely and we walked on a sidewalk lined with 'living fossils' (gingko trees), holding our signs and chatting. One lady with a cane murmured, "Well, this isn't as far of a walk as I thought," to which I cheerfully replied, "Yes, but some of us have been walking for years toward this moment."
So, led by various clergy within our group (among them Rev. Natalie Chamberlain of the United Christian Church and Rev. Bryan Jessup, a Unitarian minister), we spread ourselves around the fountain area in front of the main entrance to City Hall, whose graceful and futuristic look has led it to appearances in science-fiction films. And then something very gracious happened, which is that Mayor Alan Autry acknowledged our presence and encouraged our leaders to come forward and speak. For what happened next, you can read this Fresno Bee article by Ron Orozco, which I think is a fair and accurate description of events.
Shorter version: we were not invited, but once we arrived, we were welcomed, and we participated. It was a very good thing.