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Keeping Faith : While public prayer remains in the crossfire, private conversations with the Supreme Being appear to be on the increase. And no, not everyone is asking for a miracle.

June 05, 1995|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Northridge earthquake shook, Jo Carr prayed. When bombers blasted Oklahoma City's downtown, Luu Kim-Chi prayed. When Suhail Abdullah finished his Spanish test, he prayed.

"I got an A," the faithful ninth-grader says.

Debate about public prayer is hot again, fueled by the Christian Coalition's urging that Congress allow for greater religious speech in public places--including schools, where it was barred by the Supreme Court in 1962.

But millions of believers across Southern California--Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others--are enthusiastically entering into private conversations with Him, Her or It from their bedrooms, back yards or Nissans.

"I was stalled in traffic about a month ago," says Guru Kirn K. Khalsa, who practices Sikhism, an Indian Hindu sect, "so I started [using my prayer beads] and all of sudden I didn't care if I was stuck in traffic anymore. I could feel my heart opening. I was calm, I was relaxed."

A 1993 Gallup Poll, the most recent available, showed that more than one of three Americans pray about once a day. And if trends in publishing are any indication, prayer is definitely on the rise.

Phyllis Tickle, religion editor of Publisher's Weekly, expects at least 100 how-to prayer books to flood the market this fall, vastly more than ever before.

"A couple years back, I don't believe there would have been two dozen if I had looked everywhere," she says.

Traumas, big and small, prompt petitions for personal needs. But many people pray for others, as Buddhist Kim-Chi did after the Oklahoma City bombing; many pray chiefly to praise God, and many pray to remember to place their own needs second.

Morning prayer is a "moment of linking one's consciousness, one's effort, one's aspirations to something beyond ego gratification or the acquisitiveness of our society," says Carr, a Bel-Air psychologist. 'In Judaism, there's a prayer that basically says, 'Thank you for giving my soul back to me this morning,' and dedicating yourself to being in the service of something greater than yourself, since you were granted another day of life."

Here's a sampling of what Southern Californians pray about and how.

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Khalsa, 42, is a member of the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood, a 175-member Westside group founded in 1969 by Yogi Bhajan, who, like all Sikhs, teaches belief in one God, karma and reincarnation. His followers practice a monumentally rigorous daily routine. Khalsa, who wears only white and a turban, rises at 3:15 a.m. for a cold shower followed by 2 1/2 hours of group prayer, yoga and meditation.

"The concept is, you give one-tenth of your day to God," says the office receptionist and writer, "and then God takes care of you for the rest of the day."

That's not where her communion with God stops, however. "To us, every breath is a meditation and prayer, so as you go through your life, you just meditate on your breath and remember God."

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Song is prayer for Velma Lee, who has been singing with all her being in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church choir in Los Angeles for 26 of her 40 years.

"It's a feeling of total fulfillment," says the accountant for Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, "and it's so strong that whether the congregation feels it is not as important as the reason I'm doing it. It's not singing for fashion or fame--it's to praise Jesus' name."

One Sunday morning, Lee was overcome with such gratitude when singing "To God Be the Glory."

"I'd been thinking of that song all morning," the soprano says, "I woke up with it in my heart and I was humming it while I was getting ready to go to church. When I got there, the choir director asked me if could I sing that particular song, and I got out the first three words and just went to pieces. I had to go outside and kind of calm myself down because it was a praise song, and it said exactly how I was feeling at the time."

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Suhail, 14, prays five times throughout the day in traditional Muslim fashion. Whether at school, home, the Islamic Center of Southern California, his mosque or elsewhere, he stops what he's doing, washes up (to be clean for a visit with God) then solemnly bows, kneels and touches his nose to the ground in humility and devotion.

His ritual, which takes about five minutes, includes recitations from the Koran, such as one that affirms the absolute oneness of God: " . . . Lord of the Day of Judgment, You alone we worship; and You alone we ask for help."

Suhail, of West Covina, sometimes prays for such personal challenges as school tests, but most often "I pray for forgiveness, for myself and others, and I praise God," he says. "I also pray for health and [for] wisdom to look at things, and I pray for the well-being of others and peace."

Prayer "serves as a connection between me and God, and [by praying frequently] I'm reminded that God watches over me and so I won't do wrongful deeds. I don't forget to pray, but sometimes I don't wake up for the dawn prayer, so I make it up later."

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