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A Divisive Spirit Reigns Over National Day of Prayer Ceremony

May 01, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

MUNCIE, Ind — MUNCIE, Ind. -- For the last decade, Rev. William Keller has stood on the broad steps of City Hall on the first Thursday in May -- with city officials, local judges and a police chaplain at his side -- to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.

He planned to mark the National Day of Prayer the same way this year: A welcome from the mayor, a fervent plea that God guide civic leaders to act wisely, an echoing choir of "Amen" from the crowd of several hundred gathered.

Then Keller was asked to share the microphone.

A Unitarian Universalist minister wanted to speak at the Day of Prayer ceremony, to offer an ecumenical "meditation" on leadership. A leader of the small Muslim community here requested a chance to pray aloud to Allah. A Jewish rabbinical fellow said he, too, would like to address the crowd.

Keller turned them down. Anyone of any faith could come listen to him pray. But he would not listen to them. "I'm busy with my faith," he said in an interview this week. "I don't believe in other gods."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Prayers -- An article Thursday in Section A on the National Day of Prayer observances in Muncie, Ind., incorrectly identified the location of the city. It is in central, not southern, Indiana, an hour's drive northeast of Indianapolis.

With that, he kicked up a furor that has left many in this Bible Belt town of 70,000 ashamed, saddened, angry -- and sharply divided on a day that is intended to unify the nation.

Keller, who leads a strong evangelical Christian movement across southeast Indiana, will hold his hourlong service at noon today, as planned. At 5 p.m., an interfaith coalition will take the steps of City Hall for a second public worship, with prayers from Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, Jews and others. Rev. Thomas Perchlik, the Unitarian Universalist who is organizing the effort, has also asked an atheist to share his reflections.

Mayor Dan Canan and other civic leaders plan to attend both events. And Keller pronounces himself pleased with that solution: "Everybody can do their own thing," he said.

But many in the community are troubled by the split.

"It's ridiculous. Prayer is prayer," said Mark DiFabio, 50, an advertising salesman.

"Prayer is for everybody," agreed Ella Holloway, 47, a cafeteria manager.

In recent months, Faiz Rahman, a local Muslim leader, has listened with unease as President Bush has from time to time used the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity to frame his vision for the nation. Rahman believes such language alienates citizens of other faiths

He says he was shocked to hear a similar tone emerge in Muncie -- where evangelical Baptists prayed in a mosque, side by side with Muslims, to show solidarity a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"You'd expect this in another country, in a theocracy somewhere, but not here," said Rahman, a professor of geography at Ball State University. He estimates that there are perhaps 300 Muslims in Muncie. "If this is to be a National Day of Prayer, then all faiths should be represented," he said.

Established in 1952 to encourage Americans to pray for their political leaders, the National Day of Prayer is marked in thousands of worship services across the country -- in churches, at school flagpoles, and, often, in front of government buildings. In a proclamation honoring such events last year, President Bush called the National Day of Prayer an opportunity "to honor the religious diversity our freedom permits."

Though Muncie is predominantly Christian -- with at least 100 churches -- a growing number of other faiths are represented, including nature-worshiping Wiccans.

The town sprawls across the flat farmland of southern Indiana, about an hour's drive east of Indianapolis. Strip malls, auto dealerships and fast-food restaurants line the streets that connect Muncie to the freeway. The quiet downtown, tucked in a crook of the White River, is slowly gentrifying, with a few upscale restaurants and clothing boutiques opening.

In the 1920s, Muncie gained fame as "Middletown, U.S.A." -- a heartland city that academics held up as a perfect mirror of American culture, complete with racism, anti-Semitism and an influential branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Since then, sociologists and pollsters have returned again and again to take the pulse of the nation by studying Muncie and have found it a place of religious tolerance, where, as the local paper put it, "races and religions learned to co-exist, if not to actually welcome each other's presence."

Keller's annual observance of the National Day of Prayer drew few objections through the 1990s; those who felt uncomfortable with public prayers to Jesus Christ simply stayed away.

This year, however, with religious tensions around the globe so sharp, several pastors active in an interfaith group began to push for a more inclusive ceremony. They wanted to recognize that there's a mosque in Muncie, and a synagogue, and that the Hindu community is growing large enough to think about building a temple.

"All of America's dealing with the fact that we as a nation are becoming more diverse," Perchlik said.

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