11/03/2011 10:59 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

Prayer in Religious Activism

The sheer proliferation of tents was staggering on the landscape near City Hall at L.A. Tent City. Small groups engaged in political conversation like a scene at Brown or Yale. A young man and woman snuggled, stretched out on the ground. Through an open tent flap I noticed someone sitting quietly alone. Was this person meditating or praying?

In the heyday of the civil rights movement, prayer became a necessity for me in order to survive. I remember vividly the summer of 1965 when I lived and worked with three young black men of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in rural Mississippi and Alabama. A major objective of our effort was to support black voter registration at a time when black citizens were virtually barred from the right to vote in certain locales.

Poor black families living in outlying areas invited us to stay with them. They housed and fed us, exemplifying considerable courage. Actually they shared their lives with us. One scary night a snake crept into the shack through a hole in the floor. Danger was markedly everywhere. How could we be alert enough?

The worst incident occurred one afternoon when we were driving on a nearby highway and unexpectedly had a flat tire. We didn't possess a spare in the trunk. A filling station was nearby so we went there to ask for help. It was denied. But soon two trucks occupied by white supremacists armed with guns arrived on the scene. Now the sun was setting. Our safety was seriously threatened.

Without warning a crop duster plane appeared in the sky. It was similar to the type used by Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock in his classic film "North by Northwest." It circled menacingly in the sky. A car driven by friendly people appeared on the highway, we were given a tire and escaped. I prayed through that harrowing ordeal. There was no substitute for offering all of life, including this astonishing and scary moment, to God.

In 1961 I'd begun what developed into a decade of civil rights activism. It began as a "Prayer Pilgrimage" Freedom Ride. I received a letter saying that around 20 Episcopal clergy, black and white, would participate in a public protest. We'd seek service at a segregated lunch counter and would be arrested following refusal. It was a bloody, agonized time. I felt considerable fear. Our group gathered in New Orleans at the YMCA where John Howard Griffin had stayed during the writing of his classic "Black Like Me." We were instructed in nonviolence by Martin Luther King Jr's staff. Yes, I prayed a lot. I knew clearly that my life was not in my own hands, but God's.

What is prayer? It isn't basically asking God for something. It's being with God. We don't need silence surrounding us. There is not an "ideal" place to pray.

Do I feel there are any "rules" for praying? Feel at home. There is not any kind of "role" on our part to play with God. God knows when we are thirsty, including when our thirst is for truth and justice.

In my view, faith is our bond with God. Do we appreciate it? Work with it? Treat it creatively? Thank God for the motivation and energy of a long distance runner, letting us share kinship with Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr. extended his activism from civil rights to opposing the war in Vietnam. As a follower of his, I took part in a Peace Mass inside a corridor of the Pentagon. We were arrested for "disturbing the peace." Later, almost thirty years after the Freedom Ride, I was one of six persons arrested after appearing before the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors asking for help for persons with HIV/AIDS. What did I learn? Nothing necessarily new. Prayer is for others as well as oneself. Prayer can become an act of love for peace and justice that draws us outside self.