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You might pray for help, guidance and strength, for yourself and the ones you love—but do you pray together with, and for, your community?
Since returning to the U.S. last year after two years living in Brazil, my wife and I have experienced a sort of prayer-related culture shock. In our experience, no matter where you live it’s somewhat challenging to make authentic connections with others that go beyond superficial interactions. We’ve found that it frequently takes a lot more time and effort to overcome estrangement and build meaningful friendships here than we experienced in Brazil.
The difference? In Brazil we had a culture of communal prayer that helped bring people together and deepen our shared connections.
Developing natural and sincere friendships is challenging. It takes on even greater importance when we consider the essential role of friendship as part of the science of sociability in bringing people together. As we get better at building sincere friendships, we’ll be more successful at bringing people together to unlock that transformative power for change our societies need. As my wife and I learned in Brazil, prayer makes that process possible.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines prayer as:
An act of communication by humans with the sacred or holy—God, the gods, the transcendent realm, or supernatural powers. Found in all religions in all times, prayer may be a corporate or personal act utilizing various forms and techniques.
On the whole, the United States is clearly a very prayerful country. According to a study conducted last year by Barna Group, the vast majority of Americans (79%) reported praying at least once in the preceding three months. The population of the United States is even far more prayerful than modern economics would suggest. Globally, there tends to be a correlation between income and prayer—populations in wealthier countries tend to pray less than poorer countries. The United States is an outlier in this regard, a very wealthy country with a very high rate of prayer among the population. In fact, a study by the Pew Forum found that Americans pray more than any other wealthy country in the world.
This overwhelming commitment to prayer notwithstanding, the widespread practice of prayer does not seem to naturally translate into a shared sense of community among Americans. Differences of religion aside, the main reason seems to be because prayer is typically a very personal and private experience for Americans. The same 2017 Barna Group study found that almost all Americans who pray most often do so alone (94%). Moreover, most choose to do so silently (82%).
Although most people in the United States are not accustomed to praying with others or praying out loud, Baha’is recognize in communal prayer an immense potential for building community and inspiring meaningful change within a religiously diverse and politically, economically, and racially divided society. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”
Unlocking the potential of communal prayer as a force for community building and transformative change is dependent on what we understand prayer to be and whether it transcends the murmur of syllables and sounds into meaningful and effective action. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier service and therefore more generally chosen.”
Baha’is understand prayer to be conversation with God, which is inextricably linked with action and doing good for others. In fact, the Baha’i teachings tell us that the effectiveness of our prayers depends on action:
… all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 176-177.
Elsewhere in the Baha’i writings, the noble actions we should carry out in service to others are called “beautiful prayers”—which characterizes what it means to be a Baha’i:
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! This is the work of a true Baha’i, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Baha’is, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name. – Ibid., p. 81.
Baha’is strive to create patterns of activity in neighborhoods and communities across the globe that reflect this understanding of prayer as a life of active and inspired service to our families, friends, neighbors and the wider community. One of the main ways that Baha’is create such patterns is by bringing people together for the express purpose of praying together, in informal meetings often called Baha’i devotionals, which can utilize the prayers from all Faiths. Such a gathering, although simple in appearance, has the potential to create unique bonds with others in a way that transcends differences, estrangement, and social isolation.
Understanding prayer as a powerful source of transformative action, and not merely as an end in itself, creates a good starting point for explaining to others the purpose and benefit of praying together. Once that process of prayer leading to social action begins to happen, as the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass realized, the whole world can change: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
If you’re interested, get in touch with your local Baha’i community and ask about their devotional gatherings—we would love to meet you.