In January, as many Chattanoogans began the new year with 21 days of prayer and fasting, pastors were calling around. Did they want to get together to pray? Before long, members of several churches were convening, hundreds strong, for ecumenical prayer gatherings.
"It was so good," said Chad Harris, the pastor at The Crossing Church, which hosted one of the events.
The vitality stemmed in part from the fact that not all Christians pray the same, he said. Some prayers are contemplative, where as others are liturgical, drawn directly from Scripture. Then there's moments of cooperative prayer, where everyone is loud, unified.
More churches gathered again Good Friday, and now Thursday evening, more than 20 churches are set to unite at The Crossing Church near Tyner to observe the National Day of Prayer.
The nonprofit Chattanooga House of Prayer, which Harris called the "mastermind" behind the events, has historically marked the occasion with a service outside the Hamilton County Courthouse. This year's 7 p.m. church gathering is aimed at boosting attendance — and channeling the special energy of the earlier ecumenical gatherings.
At the January and Good Friday events, the presence of God was evident, Chattanooga House of Prayer Executive Director Adam Whitescarver said by phone Wednesday. The diversity of traditions present meant people saw alternate expressions of Christianity that, while not unrecognizable, showed up in a slightly different way, he said.
"It's not the same old," he said. "It freshens up something that you might have grown too familiar with."
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Prayer can mean a lot of things. For Harris, it is connected to the Christian idea that humans are caught up in a spiritual battle that they lack the capacity to navigate on their own. In the past, his prayer centered on requests for what he wanted, he said. But his approach has matured. Sometimes, he doesn't know what to say, but in these moments, he can fall back on the Lord's Prayer, which notably, he said begins by asking for what God wants.
"I do think prayer is asking God to come and help us," he said. "I do believe that prayer changes me."
The Revolutionary War-era Continental Congress proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, though looking back, Whitescarver said, the proclamation had a touch of Deism — not quite the flavor of present-day evangelicalism.
The National Day of Prayer in its modern form dates to the early Cold War-era, when Congress moved to enact several policies — many enduring — to integrate Christianity into public life, said constitutional law scholar Andrew Seidel of the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The decade saw the installation of a prayer room in the U.S. Capitol, the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, a failed effort to add God to the U.S. Constitution and the adoption of "In God We Trust" as the official U.S. motto.
First, however, came the 1952 establishment of the National Day of Prayer, after a young Billy Graham held a rally in Washington, D.C., calling for the government to be guided by God.
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"Lately, men have come to believe that religion has no place in the affairs of state,'" the young Graham said. But, he added, without the Lord Jesus Christ, the nation would be sailing blindly, and a "national shipwreck" would result.
Congress soon, at his urging, declared this National Day of Prayer, which took its present form following a Reagan-era amendment. Now, U.S. law says presidents on the first Thursday of May must proclaim a day "on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued after George W. Bush issued one such proclamation. The group cited the First Amendment prohibition on the government establishing a national religion, and a federal court declared the law unconstitutional. But an appeals court dismissed the suit, arguing the proclamation didn't hurt anyone, and thus it could not be challenged because no one had standing to sue.
Today, Harris, The City Crossing Church pastor, said, it doesn't take a discerning person to feel the tension of a nation at a crossroads.
"This is the National Day of Prayer," he said. "And we are unashamed in saying, 'Hey, we are not for the secularization of America. We don't want God to be removed from our nation. We want to put God at the center of our nation.'"
He said this starts with the churches. He said they must transcend a spirit of competition — and the thing they can all agree on is prayer.
The National Day of Prayer, though not explicitly Christian is, given its history, widely seen as such. But Whitescarver said all belief systems, even that of the atheist, entail elements of religion — the belief that the history they've been told is accurate, that their own eyes show them what is in fact there.
"Everybody," Whitescarver said, "lives to some degree by faith."
Contact Andrew Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6431.