Why I’m responding to the urgent needs of asylum seekers with thoughts and prayers … and action
My conscience was deeply shaken about two weeks ago, as new reports of the nightmarish conditions in border detention facilities in the U.S. started to emerge. I started to ask myself, “What would I actually do if my 5-year-old daughter was in one of these places, ripped from her mother, sick, left without the means to take care of herself, desperately trying to help the even smaller children?”
When I started to think about this question seriously, it’s remarkable how uninterested I became in political point-scoring or bickering, and how interested I became in focusing, intensely, on the real work involved in fixing the situation. Politics and issue advocacy are important pieces of the puzzle. But if that’s a role you feel drawn to play in addressing the crisis, I know from work in both fields that arguing usually just alienates people, and is simply counter-productive. In addition to politics and advocacy, there is also a lot of work to be done in directly assisting immigrants and refugees. I’ve repeatedly been surprised at the ability of people who disagree on politics to fully engage and cooperate with each other when direct support is in view.
What’s more, my desire to act expanded far beyond this immediate crisis, which needs to be addressed urgently, to a much broader and even harder goal: to move myself and the people around me from lower levels of engagement with marginalized populations into abundant generosity, welcome, love and kindness.
To my surprise, I concluded that where I really needed to start, if I’m utterly serious, is with thoughts and prayers. But not alone. And not as a substitute for action.
What I need most in this situation, and what I think we all need most, is to recover the power of authentic thought and prayer, at a moment in our history where cynical “thoughts and prayers” are often met with the cynical dismissal of thoughts and prayers.
Sometimes, even I give in to cynicism about thinking and praying, even though serious thoughts and prayers are at the heart of the most impressive sorts of organizing I’ve encountered, both personally and in reading about social movements. Again and again, I’ve seen thoughts and prayers mobilize action by touching peoples’ hearts, calming and centering them, filling them with new kinds of power, equipping groups for wise and sustained collective action, and preparing people to build effective responses and organizations together. I want my response to the crisis facing asylum seekers and immigrants to be anchored in the kind of thought and prayer that I know works.
Why I need thought, to be effective
Before we jump off the deep end into prayer, let’s start with thought. Why is thinking so essential for me?
In business, non-profit, and church work, I’ve consistently found that thinking about how to solve a problem is at least as important as acting to solve it. Thoughtless action usually leads to wasted effort, disappointment, and exhaustion. Thoughts alone clearly aren’t enough, but action without thought can easily be counter-productive. Often, you’re better off thinking and waiting to act for a bit, “keeping your powder dry,” than you are rushing off to the first action step that comes to mind.
This isn’t to suggest needless delay.
Sometimes, like now, I think we need to think hard and act fast, too.
Even if I’m working alone on a project I need to start by thinking about it. When I’m serious about being effective, I ask myself critical and constructive questions. I carefully assess my goals and strategies, costs and opportunities. Then I formulate a theory and actually try it out. Then I evaluate how things went. Eventually, this becomes a habit. Where this loop breaks down, or isn’t present at all, I eventually end up with ineffective action and fruitless speculation. Action and thought find their fullness in each other. When they are set against each other, instead of dancing and mixing with each other, both become a shadow of what they’re meant to be.
All of this applies even when I’m working on something that I can do alone. But thinking becomes even more important if we’re serious about facing a large scale problem that requires effective cooperation over time. I don’t know much, but I’m certain that I’m not going to fix the collective inhumanity that faces millions of asylum seekers and other immigrants on my own, no matter what strategy I try.
If we want to work effectively together, we need to think effectively together.
Thinking together helps teams make better decisions than any member of a team could have made alone. This works beautifully when people with different perspectives come together harmoniously, humbly and graciously. But it can even work to resolve tensions and disagreements by spinning conflict into gold when people pause, think, and realize that their distinct contributions don’t always need to be set against each other. Thinking together in teams also builds collective will and commitment, and can create a culture in which all of the team members feel heard, honored and engaged. Teams like that last, but remain flexible in the face of new challenges. That’s just what you need if you want to tackle something big.
This isn’t to say that thought, on its own, will solve things. But thought, deeply connected to action, often does.
Why I need prayer, to be effective
If ‘thought’ sounds a bit airy and impractical to a lot of our ears today, prayer is often even more suspect. The image that comes to my mind first when someone says they are “praying” is of someone muttering a few words to God (maybe?) under their breath, on their own. Then, they probably pat themselves on the back. Even though this description of prayer doesn’t match my own prayer life at all (well, okay, at least not much), that image presses itself forward in my mind when I think about praying for asylum seekers.
But what if I use “praying” to name the kind of prayer I actually engage in, instead of this caricature?
Before I talk about that, I want to be clear that I’m speaking from my own limited perspective, as a particular sort of Christian (a moderately bizarre one) in the United States in 2019. Atheists, skeptics, non-Christians and people who have been abused by churches are particularly welcome to any discussion I have on God-stuff. At least in some ways, I can relate to your distrust, because I have also worked through a lot of distrust stemming from my own experiences with religion. By talking about prayer, I’m not trying to weird you out or make you feel excluded. If all you can muster is an anthropological curiosity about this, that’s great with me. If any talk of Christian prayer practices is unpalatable to you, I don’t judge you for that in the least.
So when I pray, at least when I pray seriously, I understand it as an actual encounter with God. I routinely pray in this way with other people, too. I’ve been lucky enough to explore all kinds of wonderful prayer that has real, practical implications. Here I’ll just focus on one example: listening, or discerning prayer.
In this kind of prayer, a group of people may ask God for things. But at least as importantly, we try to listen for what God might have for us, including clarifying our sense of calling and next steps. We pay close attention for a still small voice that speaks truth to us … a truth that we only ever hear imperfectly. We may also ask open ended questions, and give people opportunities to describe what they are experiencing. When we do this, there is usually a palpable sense of God’s loving, transformative presence in the room. In this presence, there is an invitation into the deepest and most radical openness I know. And in this openness, I and other people are routinely moved and changed. Often, we feel called to act, not just alone, but together. There is a sweetly profound intermixing of our own minds and wills and perception with something indescribably deeper. This may sound flakey or exaggerated to you, especially if you haven’t experienced it, but I don’t know of a better way to describe it than this: God comes alongside us and speaks to us and encompasses and embraces us, guiding and nudging us and drawing us together.
This sort of prayer is more than thought, but it can inform thought. And the sort of thought that emerges in and through this sort of prayer is qualitatively different than thought without it. It is deeper, stiller, more powerful, more gentle, more loving, more emotional, more peaceful and more focused, but less captive to our obsessions and tunnel vision.
Why I think WE need thought and prayer
I’ve often wondered if prayer is just dead weight that should be dropped, to help us move more quickly and easily. Maybe its just old superstition. Weird religious stuff that doesn’t belong in the modern world. Something that alienates important allies in fights for justice, and is better kept in a tidy box where it won’t create unease, conflict or (maybe this is even more worrying?) curiosity.
But based on my rhythm of life and reading of history, the idea of cutting out prayer has come to sound deeply misguided to me. At least when I think of the kinds of prayer I treasure, the suggestion sounds kind of like chopping off my legs to speed things up. True, legs add some weight that you’ve got to move around. True, you can still drag yourself around with your arms. But no, those legs weren’t some extraneous bit of dead weight. Turns out, they really help you move.
I don’t think that the full dynamics that develop in and through prayer can be replicated without it. To organize a group of people for action, alone, is debilitating without thought in the mix. And it seems to me that organizing based on action and thought without prayer is, similarly, debilitating.
So here’s where I’m at on it:
Prayer isn’t dead weight that should be dropped to increase our mobility. It is essential to redemptive and powerful social movements.
Don’t take my subjective sense as an argument, though. Take it as a confession.
I do think a strong case can be made for the centrality of serious prayer to good and effective social movements. Even though I can’t make a full case here, I’d like to gesture in that direction.
I think that the most constructive, effective, redemptive and transformative social movements have prayer at their hearts. It was there at the founding of the movement for the abolition of slavery (still ongoing), and it was there at the heart of the US Civil Rights Movement (also still ongoing.) It has been at the heart of the invention of universities and hospitals and schools and monasteries. And that’s just the edge of the forest.
It is (yeah, I’m going to shock you here) even at the heart of the church, at least when church is being what it is meant to be. And even outside of Christianity, prayer is at the heart of a certain group of social movements that have been so impactful that they are often classified as something else: religions. Social movements, grown to the fullest scope and depth that we know, are called religions. Feel free to quibble about terminology if you’re into that (I am too!). But I think you can see my point. Movements don’t generally grow to the scope and depth of religions without some form of prayer, or at least something akin to it. My experience with prayer leads me to strongly suspect that this isn’t a coincidence. It is central.
Where churches have engaged in abuse, neglect, and capitulation to evil, I think one important area of spiritual collapse involves the replacement of authentic action, thought and prayer, with “thoughts and prayers”: hollow gestures and rituals that stand in for, and maybe commemorate, the vital heart that gives life to a community, where people find meaning and life and healing and power. That’s why I think we need thoughts and prayers.
If we are to build the kinds of movements that don’t simply reproduce the logic of an unjust society, but that crack it open, I think we need a force from outside of that deadly game of manipulation and agonism. Prayer puts us in touch with a source of power that is outside of those games, even when we fall into them ourselves. That’s why I think we need thoughts and prayers.
If “thoughts and prayers” are a sickening lie, it is because real thoughts and prayers have the power to lead us into truth and justice, reconciliation and restoration, peace and light and love. That’s why I think we need thoughts and prayers.
The problem isn’t that thoughts and prayers are a feeble response to evil. It is that the hollow repetition of the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is a cruel mockery of authentic, impactful thoughts and prayers.
So let’s get together with people around us, and think, pray and then act. And then let’s do it again. And again. For the rest of our lives. And let’s pass it on to our children, too.
If we do that, I’m convinced that we will encounter each other more deeply and fully: asylum seekers and allies, to be sure. But even our opponents. And I’m confident that we will encounter a God who will lead us into action that is fearless, loving, gentle, and powerful.