The Practice of Prayer in Racial Justice
By: Kris Gifford
While my evangelical upbringing impressed on me the beauty and importance of prayer, it also taught me a very transactional, paternalistic and individualistic version of prayer. Unless I ask, I will not receive. Unless I pray for Jesus to be in my heart, I will not be saved. Unless I bring someone’s prayer request to the throne, God will not listen or work.
Now, prayer is coming to me in new images: Prayer as resting in the meadow of God’s very heart. Prayer as joining the current of a river already flowing. Prayer as listening to and waiting in the vast silence of God. Prayer as physical breath, the breath of Jesus. Prayer as the cool shade of a mysterious cloud of unknowing. Prayer as Christ’s gentle hand on your forehead. Prayer as leaning towards the warmth of an already lit flame.
Developing new images of prayer was necessary, especially as I could no longer ignore the experiences of injustice and terror and trauma my BIPOC brothers and sisters were relating. Transactional and paternalistic prayer practices were not enough--and were in fact more detrimental to racial healing than beneficial. As my old prayer structure cracked under the weight of truths my spirit longed to bear, I spilled into different prayer practices that are allowing me to engage my body, mind, and spirit with the good love of God and with love for my neighbor. These methods have also been useful in racial justice work both individually and communally as I encounter stories of racial trauma, confront my own whiteness, and push for spiritual and societal healing.
1. A Symbol
Exodus 12:25-27--“When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes.’”
In my evangelical upbringing I was taught to be extremely wary of idolatry--and rightly so, in a world that idolizes material things to the point that demand for stuff often means the exploitation of people all over the globe. By learning to be suspicious of idols, I missed out on the importance of symbols as a way to connect to and experience the many dimensions of God. Recently, several of my faith mentors have helped coached me through the creation of symbols I can use that allow me to rest in the presence of God. A symbol can be a word that softly rings the presence of God in you. It can be a candle that you light in remembrance. It might be a picture, a stone, a blanket, a scent. It might be a Black Lives Matter sign in my yard. A symbol, like a ceremony, allows me to let my senses slow me down and wake me up to the greater reality that there is love, faith, and hope beyond what my own mind can conjure and know that we are all loved into our very existence at this exact moment. A symbol reminds me of God’s utter faithfulness and completion of all God’s promises. When I hold police shootings, racial violence, the fear of future racial violence and the pain of my friends’ of color in prayer, a symbol gives me a focal point for the grief I am pouring out to God and the hope and deliverance I ask God to pour out.
2. Centering Prayer
Romans 8:26-27--We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
I stumbled upon my centering prayer group in a dark basement room at St. Olaf’s church in downtown Minneapolis a couple years ago when I was in utter spiritual darkness. And there I found a circle of light and hope accepting me as I am, showing me that God accepts me too. Centering prayer has provided a structure and discipline for prayer of silence, mentally and physically. The communal practice of participating in centering prayer with a circle of others has been profoundly healing and an opportunity to love others and be loved in a new way.
In the centering prayer process you enter into an action of giving yourself fully to God’s love and letting go of your sense of self, making yourself an empty container ready to receive God as God is, without any of your own judgments, ideas, thoughts, or wishes about God. It is scary to approach God this way. And it is beautiful and uniquely healing.
Centering prayer brings me right into belonging--belonging to God and to others. And so I am finding that it is an exceptional way to experience racial healing with others. It is a profoundly equitable way for people of all backgrounds to know God--the premise of centering prayer is built receptivity, cultivating receptivity to love within yourself by the grace of God. When we accept that God’s spirit is within and teaching and calling every person, a deep and equitable love can be fostered. Opening to this love means opening to healing and peace. Centering prayer doesn’t require anyone to adopt a specific doctrinal stance or come to an explicit agreement on beliefs. It trusts the mystery of an all loving and all good God and is a way to pray in silent solidarity of spirit with our brothers and sisters of all races and experiences and religions.
3. Breath Prayer
Genesis 2:7--Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Living with PTSD has presented me the opportunity to become aware and connected to my own breath like never before. As a serious runner, I had known that breath control was important in physical pacing. But I have discovered that spiritual and emotional growth can be trained through the breath. Much of my healing exercises have been training my mind to connect back to my breath to help me be present to my current physical reality--that God breathes God’s own life within me.
Dating back to eastern 6th century Christianity, breath prayer became a way for early Christians to “pray without ceasing.” Working with the natural rhythms of the breath, this type of prayer invites one to repeat again and again a simple phrase like, “Jesus, mercy,” or “Holy one, heal.” Lately, as I have engaged more and more in racial justice work, this type prayer has been a crucial “emergency prayer.” The nature of participating in the healing racism means that words will fail, emotions will rise, triggers will present themselves, and people will want to fight or flee the conversation at some point. This type of prayer has helped me breathe through and breathe healing when there’s another story of police violence, when another friend recounts a time of racial trauma, when a leader flames the fire of racism, and when it seems like hope is lost for reconciliation. This prayer has also helped me breathe into my own areas of hard-heartedness and denial of white privilege and supremacy, expanding my capacity to tolerate the hard truth of racism and be an agent of love.
How have you been praying? How has prayer been a way towards unified love for you? How can prayer be a place of sustenance in your racial justice work?
Kris Gifford is a woman, writer, and wanderer in the Twin Cities searching for new places of wonder and love within and around herself. She is a recovering Evangelical who is rediscovering faith as a journey of love in action rather than a strict set of imposing beliefs. Kris is grateful to be on this path with all of you and with her husband and four-year-old son.