November 2, 2012 12:15:54 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Thursday morning, in downtown Columbus, an estimated 150 people gathered to bow their heads and pray in the YMCA gymnasium.
More than 1,000 miles away, in New York City, Bloomberg Businessweek published a story around the same time stating that of the $1 billion spent this election season on more than one million presidential campaign advertisements, the vast majority of the money was spent fueling rancor and division in an already-divided nation.
Is prayer the answer to healing those rifts, uniting the country in a search for common ground? Columbus' newly-formed "Christian Community in Prayer" group believes it is, and based upon a 2007 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, most Mississippians would agree.
Mississippi ranked at the top of the nation's most religious states in the survey, with 82 percent of residents saying religion was an important part of their lives, and 91 percent saying they believe in God "with absolute certainty." The state also ranked at the top of people practicing their faith, with 77 percent of believers reporting they pray at least once a day -- well above the 58-percent national average.
Thursday's public prayer effort, an outgrowth of the National Day of Prayer, focused specifically upon Tuesday's general election, but organizers say it will become a quarterly event, designed to reinvigorate a disillusioned local populace.
It was God's idea, said Nell Bateman, who came up with the concept for the "Christian Community in Prayer" after watching attendance dwindle at the National Day of Prayer service.
At one time, as many as 400 people or more gathered at the Lowndes County Courthouse on the first Thursday in May to pray for the country. Two years ago, around 40 showed up, and all agreed something should be done to increase attendance. But last year, Bateman said, only 13 or 14 people were there.
As the months passed, she tried to fight a persistent feeling that she was the one being called to bring prayer back to the forefront of community life.
"It just kept coming to me, over and over," Bateman said. "In my quiet times of reading and studying the Word, things just kept coming to me. I'm not a stand-up-and-take-charge kind of person in church things. I have real heavy feet of clay, but for some reason, I couldn't get past this."
She turned to her pastor for advice. She told him she didn't feel like a "prayer warrior." She could not understand why God would lay such a responsibility on her heart.
Her pastor told her to call a committee meeting to gauge response. And at this year's National Day of Prayer, held May 3 at the courthouse, they distributed more than 500 programs to attendees.
The response was so positive, she and other committee members decided community-wide prayer events should be held on the first Thursday of February, May, August and November. The May events will coincide with the annual Day of Prayer.
It just so happened that this year, the fourth quarter meeting fell five days before the presidential election.
An angry nation
Bateman said this election season seems fraught with animosity, with much coming from the presidential campaigns, and statistics indicate there may be some substance to her supposition.
Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, based in New York, told Businessweek that 87 percent of the advertisements aired by President Barack Obama's campaign and Republican challenger Mitt Romney's campaign were negative.
Obama ruled the airwaves, with his re-election campaign dominating 87 percent of the Democratic Party's ads -- 84 percent of which were negative.
Among Republicans, 36 percent of their ads were produced by Romney's campaign and 52 percent originated from "super-PACs" -- which are not allowed to contribute directly to candidates' campaigns but can raise unlimited funds to spend independently on political advertisements. Of the Republican ads, 91 percent were characterized by Kantar Media's CMAG as "attack ads."
"I will be glad when (the presidential election) is done, because I think our country needs to move beyond this anger and hostility a lot of people are feeling," Bateman said. "It gets personal, and sometimes that's not good."
A country in need
Glenn Lautzenheiser, one of the organizers of Thursday's political prayer meeting and a member of "Christian Community in Prayer," said though the group focused on the Nov. 6 election, they prayed not only for the candidates but also for the government, voters, media and the election process.
Representatives were on hand from First Baptist Church, United Christian Baptist Church, Sweet Pilgrim and Stevens Chapel Missionary Baptist churches, New Covenant Baptist Church and Annunciation Catholic Church. Prayers were also delivered by YMCA Pastor Stephanie Gibson, 16th Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens, Lowndes County Circuit Clerk Mahala "Haley" Salazar and retired United States Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas Moore.
Jerry and Lucie Lane, of Columbus, attended the prayer service to support the fledgling community group and pray for the country, its leaders and the upcoming election.
"We feel like this is a very, very important election year," Lucie Lane said Thursday afternoon. "Our country is very much in need of prayer. This country needs God's blessings."
Her husband, Jerry Lane, said he was inspired by a Bible verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14, in which God states: "If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." (King James 2000 version)
"Our country has a sickness, and just as history has said through the years, when all great nations have turned their backs on God, that's when they fail," Jerry Lane said, adding that though he felt God's presence at the community prayer meeting, he and his wife were disappointed by the relatively meager turnout.
But Lautzenheiser said those who attended seemed moved by the experience, and he was pleased to see a cross-section of the community show up for the non-partisan event.
"We have, under our Constitution, freedom of religion, but government should not be divorced from religion," Lautzenheiser said. "Our founding fathers were very clear. It's important for people who have religious principles to get involved. I believe the greatest power in the world is not hydraulic or atomic -- it is the power of prayer. Prayer does change things."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.