07/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Circling Around the Divisiveness of a National Day of Prayer

I continue to be fascinated by the controversy and commentaries connected to the National Day of Prayer 2010! What is most striking is the more extreme the view, the less knowledge there is about the designated "adversary." After renewing his criticism of Islam, Franklin Graham recently said, "No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of Hinduism's 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation." I wonder how many Hindus would agree with him -- only because his comments are so far off base when it comes to the heart of Hindu religious beliefs. Graham is also quoted as saying, "We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big kumbaya service and all hold hands and it's going to get better in this world. It's not going to get better." He's right, you know: it's not going to get better as long as we are complicit with perpetuating ignorance, as long as we think the only way to justify our own beliefs is to undermine those of others. If we refuse to educate ourselves, if we refuse to expand our horizons, it can't get better because we aren't contributing to making it any better.

As the director of Fellowship in Prayer, I belong to an interfaith clergy group. At our meeting today, we shared prayers for our nation, for our world. The prayers, rooted in our distinct religious traditions, nuanced our common hope for peace and justice, and for fullness of life for everyone. It was eminently clear that Quaker silence seeks the same end as the prayerful words taken from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, the Rabbi's Hebrew blessing, the meditation of our Buddhist friends, or the call to prayer issued by the Muslim chaplain at the university. Now, if you happen to get riled up at the very mention of prayer, just be aware that we may have very different notions of what prayer is, even before we consider what it does or doesn't do.

Divisive rhetoric, whether coming from Graham or any one of us, is naïve. It oversimplifies things. And we sell ourselves short to settle for it. An alternative narrative can be shaped through genuine dialogue and interreligious and/or intercultural partnerships. Fellowship in Prayer, together with the Interfaith Dialog Center -- founded by Turkish-Americans to promote respect among diverse faiths and cultures -- is hosting an Interfaith Dialogue on Women of the Covenant on this Day of Prayer. Three women -- Jewish, Muslim and Christian -- Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Dr. Ingrid Mattson and Dr. Westina Matthews, who trace their religious heritage to Abraham, will speak on their unique experiences of faith and how spiritual practice influences the ways they are in and about the world. We've no plans to sing Kumbaya, but we do plan to talk to each other, openly and honestly, and to listen and question and think and act based on mutual respect and appreciation. There is the distinct possibility that we will be changed for the better in some way from this interaction, and it could have a ripple effect on our nation and the world. The poet Edwin Markham wrote,

They drew a line that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!

But love and I had the wit to win

We drew a circle and brought them in.

I think we could all benefit from drawing an ever widening circle. We might be surprised at how enriched we become in the process. If you are interested in engaging further in interfaith circles, please visit and join us on the campus of Princeton University June 24 to 27 for a wonderful conference on how spiritual practice within and across religious traditions is empowerment for social change.