As a fellow Christian minister, and former chaplain at UCLA, I am saddened and shocked by the prayers given by Rev. Dr. Paul Jones at the Pismo Beach City Council meetings (“Pay to pray?” Nov. 7). Rev. Dr. Jones should be free to use any language or prayers that he and his congregation agree to inside a church, but not at a City Council meeting.
There is an enormous difference in serving as a spiritual presence outside a church. Most traditional denominations (including my own, the United Church of Christ) require that a minister be acutely aware of this difference, requiring them to serve at least 400 hours as chaplain in an institution accredited by the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education. In these settings, you learn how to respect other faith traditions, other sacred texts, other people who do not identify as religious, as well as people whose ethnicities, abilities, or sexual orientations are different from your own. You learn how to be a non-judgmental spiritual presence that supports all people outside of a traditional church.
It sounds as if Rev. Dr. Jones never went through this kind of chaplain training, or at least was not impacted by it, as the Christian Bible was cited at least 88 times in the 112 prayers that he offered outside a church. All but one of the 126 prayers offered between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013, were to the Christian God. How is this respecting those gathered at the City Council meeting who do not identify as Christian? Not everyone who identifies as religious identifies as Christian; there are equally religious Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoists, and Unitarian Universalists, just to name a few. How were their sacred texts included or respected during prayer time? Moreover, not everyone who identifies as religious even believes in God. There are atheistic religions and theistically ambiguous ones. Prayers to God—especially to God as a “Heavenly Father” (Oct. 16, 2012)—excludes people in these traditions. An ever-growing number of individuals, “Nones,” do not even consider themselves religious and do not belong to any tradition. How are they included and respected in these types or prayers?
Members of our local community interested in the common good should not be forced to agree with religious beliefs that are not their own or asked to pray to a God they do not believe in. There is already a power imbalance present to those who do not consider themselves Christian, because Christianity is the dominant form of religion in our country. Ignoring this power differential and subjecting everyone present at a City Council meeting to pray as if they were Christian is disturbing to me. If I were in a culture with a different dominant form of religion, I would not like to be forced to pray as if I were a member of that religion; I am supposing that Rev. Dr. Jones would feel the same way.
Loving our neighbor as ourself includes creating a safe space for individuals of every gender, ethnicity, ability, creed, or sexual orientation to work together for the common good. It is the role of a chaplain to remind others of the sacred ground of every life and space, a function that, by ignoring the diversity of those who attend the Pismo Beach City Council meetings, Rev. Dr. Jones seems incapable of performing.
Rev. Jason Sisk-Provencio lives in Shell Beach. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.