The October 7 attack on Israel reignited a simmering conflict that has long divided Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and around the world.

The audience at an interfaith event, wearing some religious garb An interfaith event in 2013 (Catholic Church England and Wales / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

And, yet, in cities across the United States (and beyond), many Jews and Muslims responded to the mounting violence by joining together in prayer. From Rochester to Buffalo, and Detroit to Palo Alto, Muslims, Jews, and often their neighbors of Christian and other faiths gathered for interfaith prayer vigils. They prayed together for peace in the Middle East and for solidarity between their communities at home.

Prayer may seem an odd choice for an interfaith gathering—a practice so specific to each individual faith tradition that it could only be divisive. And, yet, I have seen firsthand how prayer can operate as a powerful bridging cultural practice, a term my colleagues and I use to describe practices that are used to construct shared identities across differences.

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The goal of such practices is not to deny differences, but rather to focus attention on what participants share, including an appreciation of their differences. Prayer, it turns out, is a powerful method of achieving such aims.

What happens when we pray together

Though many people pray alone, most religious communities also incorporate collective prayer. Prayer in the company of others is at root a method of focusing the group’s attention, and then turning it upward and outward. When performed in a religiously diverse setting, it can focus attention on shared meaning and purpose that transcends any single individual, any current situation, or even any specific understanding of the divine.

Moreover, while each religious community certainly has its own style of prayer, the act of praying in general is likely to be familiar to almost all people of faith. This familiarity means that people with little else in common are able to participate in a collective prayer ritual, and through their participation to enact their shared identity as “people of faith.” This umbrella identity can, at least temporarily, allow people to step back from the more specific identities that may divide them—whether one is Jewish or Muslim or Christian; white or Black or Latino or Arab; wealthy or poor; Democrat or Republican.

This is likely why prayer has become, perhaps counterintuitively, a staple of interfaith organizing. In the multi-faith community organizing coalition in a large Northeastern city that I spent several years studying, leaders began nearly every meeting with a prayer; they prayed at public rallies and in private gatherings; they prayed in their specific faith languages and in creative new ways that could not be traced to any single faith tradition.

Curious about the variation in these styles of prayer, I set about comparing and contrasting which prayers they used in which kinds of settings. I made a surprising discovery—that as the group setting became more racially or socioeconomically diverse (in addition to being religiously diverse, which was a constant), group leaders engaged in more elaborate and distinctive prayer practices.

Take, for example, the coalition’s general assembly, an annual event that brought together members of local Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant communities, which also meant people of a wide variety of races, ethnicities, immigration journeys, and socioeconomic statuses. An Italian American Catholic priest called everyone to prayer. “If you are Jewish,” he began, “stand for Adonai. If you are Muslim, stand for Allah. If you are Christian like me, stand for Jesus.” And everyone stood, side by side, to pray.

Choosing the right words

In other diverse settings, clergy offered prayers from their own traditions, but replaced any references to a single faith tradition with “neutral” terminology. Others avoided prayers drawn from any religious tradition by incorporating non-religious texts—like news articles, poetry, and social criticism—into their reflections. In these various ways, the interfaith prayers they offered sought to be inclusive of everyone present, to draw them into a single ritual that felt both familiar and new.

The prayers offered in such settings were also distinctive in the messages they conveyed. In particular, leaders typically used the occasion of the prayer to focus attention on the group’s shared values and vision for their work together. In a session focused on advancing racial justice in their community, a Lutheran pastor cited W. E. B. Du Bois.

Because [Du Bois] said at the very turn of the last century very similar things that we are thinking and feeling and understanding today. So I’m gonna read just some snippets of his . . . “credo,” written in 1918. . . . “I believe in God,” he says, “who made of one blood all nations that on earth do dwell. I believe that all men,” he said, “black and brown and white are brothers, varying through time in opportunity, in form, in gift, in feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul, and the possibility of infinite development.” . . . We are people seeking to make the world better and to align ourselves with many other voices, which is the beauty of what’s happening around our country. People are speaking again, and not recognizing each other’s differences. That is power. . . . In my language, when we’re done with meditation, we always say, “So be it. Amen.”

Through this prayer, the pastor sought to focus the group’s attention on their shared faith-based vision of racial solidarity, and on their identities as change agents “seeking to make the world better.”

Bodies in prayer

In these diverse settings, clergy also encouraged participants to physically interact with one another during such prayer rituals—to join their voices in song; to shake hands; to link arms in a circle.

Before leading a prayer at the beginning of a training session, one rabbi told a story about how the Jews of the Bible, newly freed from enslavement, built relationships as free members of a new society. She recounted that the community’s leaders prepared for their role by dabbing oil onto their ears, their thumbs, and the big toe of their foot. As she spoke, she touched her own ear, thumb, and toe, and encouraged us to do the same. The tone in the room loosened and people laughed as they dramatically touched their ears and bent to touch their toes. She reflected:

It’s an amazing set of reminders for us, too, as we gather in relationship building. Because it meant that these leaders—and all of us are leaders tonight—had to listen well first. The first thing was the ear. . . . Second, they had to reach out their hand—right?—to connect to someone, and to use that human connection. What makes us human? It’s our thumbs. . . . And then to make those connections, they couldn’t just stand there and reach out their hand. They had to walk over and connect with somebody—right?

Then she prayed:

Let’s turn our attention to prayer for a minute, and be thinking about your ear, and your thumb, and your toe. Let’s turn to God. We ask you, oh God, who creates human beings in your image, and teaches us the way to walk through our life, that you give us knowledge, knowledge that we need to go back to our communities to create relationships, to organize there, so that eventually we can reach out into our entire city and improve the lives of so many. And in that way, we’ll be listening, and we’ll be reaching out, and we’ll be taking the steps to make that happen. Amen.

Making religion a bridge

Americans today may be inclined to view religion primarily as a source of division, but this is not the whole story. Indeed, when even deeply divided groups are able to focus on their shared religious values, practices, or identities, this can be a powerful source of solidarity. This can work in the kinds of socially diverse interfaith settings described above, as well as within specific faith communities that struggle with more trenchant social divisions.

For example, in recent decades as the country has struggled to address stalling progress toward racial equity, many American faith communities have confronted their own role in maintaining racial division. More than half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. observed that 11 a.m. on Sundays—when many Christians attend church—is “the most segregated hour of the week,” American churches remain starkly divided by race and ethnicity. And, yet, more and more church leaders are working to build multiracial faith communities. This work is guided by a vision that by worshipping together—by singing and studying and praying side by side, week after week—Christians of various racial backgrounds might transcend this enduring racial divide and forge a shared community. 

Similarly, as American society is threatened by deepening political division, some faith leaders are refusing to take sides in this partisan battle and instead working to cultivate communities open to people of all political stripes. These “purple churches”—so called because they welcome partisans both “red” and “blue”—are not without conflict and challenges. But they are viewed by the congregants who flock to them as respites from the political storm that rages outside their doors; as rare spaces in American life where neighbors can potentially rebuild relationships weakened by bruising political campaigns, and learn to talk to each other again. 

Like interfaith coalitions and multiracial churches, these purple churches are natural experiments in the use of religious practices like prayer to help people bridge their social divides. This process is not simple, and may not ultimately succeed. Prayer is not a magic wand for healing social division. What it can do is provide a routine opportunity for group members to physically gather, to focus their collective attention on a shared desire to build community across their differences, and to suspend conflicts for long enough to develop relationships that might endure once prayer concludes.

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