Posted January 4th 2012 at 7:00 am by
in Faith and Planning

Asking an Agnostic to Pray

H. Carl Moultrie I Courthouse IMG_3801

I didn’t know what to say the first time a woman asked me to pray for her. I was 22 years old and a social worker in the domestic violence unit of Moultrie Courthouse in Washington D.C. Like many of the women I met there, she was a faithful Christian suffering one of the worst moments in her life.

She needed many things: a new apartment, a safety plan, and then strength to leave an abusive relationship. My job was to connect her to all of those things, and I was trained to do so. But I was not trained – by my upbringing or any workplace program – to pray for her.

My deepest instinct was to tell this woman that yes, I would pray for her. But praying implied God, and I didn’t always believe in God. Furthermore I didn’t recall any time that I’d prayed before. I couldn’t lie to her.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist. Every Sunday throughout my childhood, during the Sharing of Joys and Concerns portion of the service, I learned about the people in our church who were struggling with illness or loss, and I wished them well. I also stared at the grownups’ bowed heads through countless moments of silence. As far as I could remember, no one ever classified these activities as prayer.

So I told the woman that I would think very hard about her, and concentrate on a bright future for her. She seemed pleased, if not a little surprised.

This particular woman turned out to be the first of many to ask me for prayers. Since I went to church nearly every weekend, and each service came with a moment of silence to fill, I started filling it with these women – sometimes when they hadn’t requested it. Eventually I had to ask myself: Who was I to not need this faith in God, while people I respected so deeply relied on it every day?

I left my job as a social worker after two years and I never returned. The stories I heard, at the volume I heard them, were too much. I did, however, return to the questions these women gave me about faith.

These are the words my congregation said in church every Sunday when I was a child:

Love is the doctrine of this church

The quest for truth is its sacrament

And service is its prayer —

To dwell together in peace,

To seek knowledge in freedom,

To serve humanity in fellowship,

To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.

Thus do we covenant together.

It was hard for me to fathom praying for this woman being there at the courthouse – for many hours each week and at little pay – was my act of prayer. And service it its prayer.

Now I do something different with my time. I have a city planning degree from MIT and I run this website and its related projects for a salary. I do not consider this service.

The quest for truth is its sacrament. CoLab Radio is a daily quest for truth, even if it’s the smallest glimpse at a truth. Knowing what Ms. Teresa Diaz looks like at work, monitoring buses in Lima, is a truth to me. So is knowing what a community theater means to a teenager from Biddeford, and what it’s like to be a teacher in a violent school district.

The act of finding and publishing a blog post every day is an act grounded in faith for me. I didn’t have to write this essay to know that about myself. I’ve known it, but I didn’t think to tell my co-workers until after I wrote this.

I do not recall any discussions on faith in my planning courses at MIT, and I don’t remember any discussions on the relationship between faith and Literature during undergrad. So it feels risky to say these things publicly.

The trouble with keeping silent on faith, at least in the case of urban planning, is that faith is fundamental to most communities. If you have no space to examine the relationship between your practice of urban planning and faith – whether that faith is your own or the faith(s) of a community you work in – what have you missed?

Related posts:

In Search of a Better Mosque

Asking an Atheist to Pray

Photo by OZinOH on Flickr.

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