Prayer at Council Meetings
When I heard Councilmember Kennedy bring up the idea of opening city council meetings with prayer during the pandemic at the last meeting, I was alarmed. It is often during a crisis that our freedoms are eroded and the dominant narrative is assumed to apply universally to everyone.
While I have no doubt that Mr. Kennedy’s intentions are good and I share his desire to feel connected to my fellow residents of Pasadena during this unprecedented crisis, I’m very concerned about prayer being the mode for expressing this solidarity. I am concerned that prayer will be interpreted to mean Christian prayer and that this will be assumed to apply equally to everyone in Pasadena. There are, of course, individuals of many different religious traditions in our city and many who have no traditional religion or spirituality.
I was raised as a Christian and for two decades I was a pastor. I led my community through many crises, including 9/11, through prayer, so I understand the power in shared ritual. Today, I have found immense peace and fulfillment as an atheist and a secular humanist. I no longer believe in any of the gods that humanity has worshiped and find it galling that a benevolent God would allow tens of thousands of people to die of a pandemic (to say nothing of the myriad other daily atrocities around the world). This is a limited and overly simplistic expression of my view but it does get at a key part of the problem.
What I think is needed—and Mr. Kennedy also touches on this the article by Kevin Kenney—is a moment of pause to recognize that we are in the same boat. For many people, prayer is the way to make this acknowledgment, but for others it is not.
Our urgent need is not to invoke a higher power but to recognize that when we acknowledge our shared humanity, we become that power. Rich and poor, homeowners, tenants, and the homeless. Teachers, farmers, nurses and doctors, construction workers, bank tellers, grocery store workers, truck drivers. We need everyone in our community. This has never been more apparent. But let us not outsource our responsibility to a “higher power” when the thing we need is right here, within our reach. This pandemic is laying bare the inequities in our society and we need to rise to the moment, protect the most vulnerable, and repair our institutions that allow some to be so incredibly vulnerable in the first place.
I hope city council will institute a moment at the beginning of its meetings. I just hope it isn’t prayer. A moment of reflection and recognition that our “power” is in solidarity with other human beings and our shared natural environment could be an important reminder that we are united in this struggle at the level of our humanity.
Ryan Bell, Pasadena
When I presided over the City Council meetings as Mayor at the
start of each meeting a representative of each of the many faiths
in Pasadena would make a presentation on the meaning of citizenship to that faith. No one complained about a violation of the separation of church and state.
So there is a precedent for this.
Bill Paperian, Pasadena
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