A New Twist on an Old Tradition

May 8, 2020

Nothing about the National Day of Prayer was conventional -- but for Americans, hungry for hope in dark times, that didn't matter a bit. By now, people are used to getting creative with their events. And Thursday was no exception.

They were standing through sunroofs, sitting on asphalt, or just bowing their heads in their cars -- but no matter how they were observing the day, they were doing it in record numbers. Out in Nebraska, so many hundreds of people pulled in for the drive-through prayer gathering that they had to set up a secondary location. "We've never had this level of response," said an astonished Steve Johnson, the local coordinator for the National Day of Prayer. But then, "We've never had this level of trials either." While the service streamed across a jumbotron and area radio stations, he looked out over a sea of cars and thought, wow. People really need hope.

It turned out to be true -- not just in Nebraska -- but everywhere. In Abilene, Texas, families pulled right into police headquarters to hold their service. Before the broadcast got started in the parking lot outside, organizer Chuck Farina asked everyone listening on KGNZ to honk. He joked later that he was sure there was a Psalm to the effect of "Praise Him with loud-sounding horns."

Stories started pouring in to local newspapers and the National Day of Prayer task force about virtual prayer walls and prayer parades -- people waving tiny American flags as they drive down county streets. Kathy Branzell, who took over for Shirley Dobson as the head of the national event, shook her head in amazement at how God had put all of this in motion long before anyone knew about the coronavirus. "I spent days fasting and praying over this theme verse, and God kept taking me back to Habakkuk [2:14]," she said. "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." When the task force announced it last fall, she remembered people saying, "Where is America in this theme?" Now, looking back, Kathy smiles, "God obviously knew the whole world would need prayer."

In his own remarks, President Trump pointed to the faith community, recognizing how critical their work has been on the ground. "We're also profoundly grateful to be joined by many faith leaders who are helping to care for our neighbors in their hour of need. Thank you all for providing meals to families, medical supplies to hospitals, and for providing spiritual strength and encouragement to your communities. You're very important people, very respected people, and very much-loved people." And, in a pointed rebuke of New York City liberals, he took a moment to single out Samaritan's Purse and its tireless volunteers in Central Park. He quoted one of the nurses, Brittany Akinsola, who said simply, "We just keep sharing the love of Christ through our gifts of nursing."

In between services and proclamations, the White House went about the day by emphasizing the freedom that makes it possible: religious liberty. Deep in discussions with other administration officials, the president's team decided to reject the CDC's recommendations for re-opening places like churches. Worried that they were "overly prescriptive" and "infringed on religious rights," HHS's Roger Severino, who runs the agency's Office of Civil Rights, told the New York Times that officials have to find a way not to overregulate churches. "Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God."

Internally, Severino is fighting for churches to be treated the same as everyone else. "Protections against religious discrimination aren't suspended during an emergency," he insisted. "This means the federal government cannot single out religious conduct as somehow being more dangerous or worthy of scrutiny than comparable secular behavior." It's a message that continues to resonate -- not just from HHS, but DOJ, the White House, and courts around the country where the president's 200 confirmed judges continue to air on the side of the Constitution.

For all of the challenges our nation continues to face, the National Day of Prayer was one moment to reflect on the answered ones: a president, leadership team, and administration that continues to fight for what's right.