A bestselling book on prayer has some Christians upset and calling on Target stores to remove it from their shelves.
“ A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal ” — edited by progressive Christian author Sarah Bessey — features a number of different types of prayers written by theologians, pastors and authors from various Christian traditions. It hit bestseller lists in both the United States and Canada when it was released in February.
The prayers in the book include a benediction by Bessey, a poem by Potawatomi Christian author and speaker Kaitlin Curtice, a prayer based on a chicken soup recipe by pastor and peacemaker Osheta Moore, “A Liturgy for Disability” by author and disability advocate Stephanie Tait and even blank pages for those times when it feels like there aren’t words.
But it’s the “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman” by clinical psychologist and womanist theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes that has caught the attention of Fox News and conservative Christians on Twitter, some tweeting at Target to remove the book from its stores.
One line from the prayer in particular has caused the backlash, which reads: “Dear God, Please help me to hate White people.”
Bessey and other contributors to “A Rhythm of Prayer” responded to what they said has been a “firestorm of harassment, criticism, coordinated attacks, threats, and furor against her and the book” with a statement published Thursday evening (April 8) on Bessey’s website, saying critics are missing the point of the prayer.
“Dr. Walker-Barnes’ prayer is faithful, honest lament, modelled on Scripture. It is a gift of intimacy and vulnerability to the Church and we are grateful to her, not only the prayer, but for her work and her witness in the world,” the statement reads.
“The backlash that Dr. Walker-Barnes is facing because of her prayer ironically serves as proof of why such a prophetic, powerful, and potent prayer is necessary.”
The controversy seems to have started — as most controversies do these days — with a tweet.
Over the weekend, a Virginia pastor posted a photo of the first page of Walker-Barnes’ prayer that he said was sent to him by a member of his church who spotted the book at Target. The controversial first line of the prayer was underlined.
In a follow-up tweet, Ryan McAllister, an elder and lead pastor at Life Community Church in Alexandria, Virginia, added, “This kind of thinking is a direct result of CRT and is completely anti-biblical.”
CRT, or critical race theory, is an academic theory examining systemic racism.
The theory has become a lightning rod since the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council of Seminary Presidents issued a statement in November declaring it incompatible with the denomination’s statement of faith. The statement did not define critical race theory or explain how it clashes with the core beliefs of Southern Baptists, and several prominent Black Southern Baptists since have announced their departures from the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Conservative writer Rod Dreher described the prayer as racist and blasphemous Thursday in a blog post.
“What Walker-Barnes and her progressive Christian allies represent is, let’s be clear, the spirit of Antichrist. It is blasphemous to call on God to make you hate people at all, much less on the basis of race,” Dreher wrote.
The statement from contributors to “A Rhythm of Prayer” pointed out Walker-Barnes’ prayer is modeled on biblical Psalms of lament and anger, called imprecatory Psalms.
“Prayers in Scripture often reflect a similar arc of anger and exhaustion and longing that turns the petitioner right back to trust in God’s goodness, hope, and call to love, just as Dr. Walker-Barnes modelled so well,” it reads.
Walker-Barnes tweeted, “Being a professor, I can tell when people haven’t done or understood the reading.”
The author explained on social media that she had written “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman” after a white person she had considered a friend used the “N-word” in casual conversation with her.
“I took my rage to God in prayer. I owned it. I was truthful to God about what I was struggling with. And I prayed for God not to let anger and hatred overwhelm me,” Walker-Barnes tweeted.
While her own personal experiences and her family history — her grandfather fled sharecropping in South Carolina — have given her reason to hate white people, she tweeted, God has given her “a different spirit, one that insists on looking for goodness and possibility, one that holds anger and hope together.”
In the prayer, Walker-Barnes begins by asking God to help her “at least want to hate” white people, to stop her from “striving to see the best in people,” to be “able to walk away from them and their sinfulness without trying to call them to repentance.” But, she continues, “You have kept my love and my hope steadfast even when they have trampled on it.”
The prayer ends: “Thus, in the spirits of Fannie and Ida and Pauli and Ella and Septima and Coretta, I pray and I press on, in love.”
Gospel singer and pastor Deitrick Haddon has lost family and church members to COVID-19, as have many other Americans.
The star of the “Preachers of L.A.” and “Fix My Choir” reality shows has turned to his art form to express that shared sense of grief.
“Sick World” — a single featuring both gospel and trap, a form of hip hop music, premiered on the 2021 Inaugural Gospel Celebration and is available on various platforms, such as Spotify and Amazon Music.
Haddon, who has a Pentecostal background, leads Los Angeles’ Hill City Church, a nondenominational, predominantly Black congregation that is marking its fifth anniversary this month (March). The church hasn’t met in person for a year, due to COVID-19, but he plans to host an outdoor service on Azusa Street — known for being the historic site of a revival in the early 20th century — on Easter Sunday.
Haddon talked to Religion News Service about why he co-created “Sick World,” his personal and national losses from the pandemic and his plans to keep up pandemic practices long after it’s over.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to create the new single “Sick World”?
I could see the world was grieving. I was grieving. I lost my Aunt Celeste (Folmar) last year in 2020. I lost one of my eldest brothers, Shawn (Derrick) Haddon, rest in peace. Even lost a member of my church. I just wanted to write a song that will bring some peace and comfort to people and help people realize there is life beyond this pandemic. We’ve all lost a significant amount of people in a short amount of time. I said, if I had the opportunity to speak to everybody, whether you were Black or white, rich, poor, a believer, or unbeliever, Democrat, Republican, what would I say to everybody? And that was the song that I wrote.
Why did you choose to use music that combines gospel and trap music, a form of hip hop, and work with record producer Zaytoven?
Zaytoven is like a brother of mine. He’s been supportive of my music for years. He’s had success in the trap world. He’s considered to be one of the originators of that sound. He’s produced hit records with (rappers) Gucci Mane, Future and a lot of artists. He has a love for gospel music, and we just brought it together. Gospel music can’t really be put in a box. You can place the message in any form. It just gelled perfectly. The lyrics flowed. Once I heard the music, the song wrote itself.
The lyrics include the words “can’t stand to lose nobody else.” Why did you choose to use those words?
First of all, it was a big blow to lose Kobe Bryant and his daughter at one time. And all the lovely souls that were in that helicopter crash. Then, in the midst of that pandemic, we lost great people like Chadwick Boseman. His career seems like it was just really taking off, skyrocketing, and he’s the king of (the mythical nation of) Wakanda, for God’s sake, in our minds. He’s too strong. We’ve seen how people had succumbed to COVID, and how powerful COVID-19 was. The only thing I can hear in my heart: Man, we can’t stand to lose anybody else. I mean, how much more can we take?
You wanted to capture a broader remembrance of lives lost at this time.
Yeah. Yeah. Just anybody whose lives were lost last year. It’s hard to separate it from the pandemic. It’s just a year of loss, great loss, whether through the COVID pandemic or not, just too many people. One of my favorite No. 1 gospel artists in the world — one of the best — was Rance Allen. I never thought in a million years that we would lose him. And I learned how to sing listening to him.
Have you had to officiate at funerals of church members who have died because of COVID?
We’ve only had one member that belongs to my church. We called her “Cookie.” I had to preach the service under a tent outdoors, outside of the actual funeral home building.
You also sing of the debates about wearing masks and say thousands have died because we cannot agree. Are there other ways you’re trying to move people beyond the debates other than your song?
Making people agree with you is a hard thing to do. But I put my opinion and my perspective in a song. This will all go down in history, that thousands have died ’cause we could not agree. I do believe we extended the pandemic. I do believe we made it worse than what it should have been because of our inability to unite and come together as one as a nation and agree on the simple things like wearing a mask. You asked the question: Am I doing anything outside of my song? No, I’m not doing anything outside of my song because I can’t force anybody to do anything. I put it in the song ’cause the song can go where I can’t go.
What was it like to present your musical message at the time of the inauguration, since it was both a new administration and an administration that’s been focusing on COVID-19 from the beginning?
I thought it was perfect for me because I’ve been an advocate for people wearing masks and keeping their hands clean. So I’m right in sync with Joe Biden’s administration’s calls to get this thing cleared up and get a unified effort as a nation to come together. I was also excited to be a part of such a historic event, where we had the first female vice president of the United States of America.
What are you looking forward to most when more people are vaccinated and the country may experience what everybody’s calling a “new normal”?
I love to take my three kids and my wife on trips to Disney World and everywhere. So hopefully we’ll be able to get back and feel comfortable with traveling and enjoying life and wonderful things that we do, like going to the movies, just the regular things we do that we’ve taken for granted, I believe. But I also hope we will understand the importance of keeping our hands clean and not just touching everything, and I hope we can keep some things going, because that’s how germs transfer. Hopefully, we can continue to comply a little bit with keeping our hands clean and wearing a mask. I think I’ll always keep that in place from now on.
Faith groups are celebrating Virginia’s decision to ban the death penalty, a move considered to be a victory for religious opposition to capital punishment.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the ban — the first of any Southern state and the 23rd overall — into law on Wednesday (March 24), declaring it “the moral thing to do.”
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” Northam said. “The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed — it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death.”
The Rev. LaKeisha Cook, a lead organizer at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, also spoke at the signing ceremony.
“Today I stand here representing many people of faith all throughout the commonwealth of Virginia,” Cook said. “Virginia Interfaith was very, very happy to join officially in this fight for abolition. Today we turn the page in the history books of this great commonwealth as we celebrate the end of the death penalty.”
Cook pointed to the activism of the state’s “amazing faith community,” such as those who held prayer vigils at sites of lynchings in January to highlight the historical link between early racist killings and the modern death penalty, or the nearly 430 faith leaders who signed on to a letter opposing the death penalty in February.
Cook noted the advocacy of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which also voiced support for the ban on Wednesday. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond released a statement citing Pope Francis, whose 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” included the line: “The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe.”
“Through our Virginia Catholic Conference, we supported this historic legislation as it progressed through the General Assembly because all human life is sacred,” read the statement from Burbidge and Knestout. “We are grateful to those who worked to make this a reality.”
Catholics in the U.S. have long opposed capital punishment, and Francis voiced support for abolishing the practice during his 2015 address to Congress.
But the pontiff made things even more explicit in 2018 when he changed the church’s catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” and insist that the church will work “with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
The Virginia bishops were joined in their celebration by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“Virginia will become the twenty-third state to abolish the death penalty, and I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same,” Coakley said in a statement.
He praised the work of advocates such as the Catholic Mobilizing Network before adding: “We are reminded that God created and loves every person, and we can respond to this love with reverence for the dignity of every human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem.”
Opposition to the death penalty has grown over the past few decades and is common in several faith communities. A 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 55% of Americans preferred life in prison without parole instead of capital punishment for people convicted of murder, compared with 44% who preferred the death penalty. Majorities of Black Protestants (80%), non-Christian religious groups (57%) and white Catholics (54%) also favored life in prison.
Of those polled, only two groups expressed majority preference for the death penalty: white evangelicals (62%) and white mainline Protestants (54%).
Virginia Catholics were echoed by other stalwart faith-rooted opponents of the death penalty this week, such as Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne. He championed the ban when versions of it first passed both chambers of the state legislature in February, and he called on the federal government to do the same.
“President (Joe) Biden is poised to do the same thing Virginia just did: reckon with the mistakes of our past and use that past to help us envision a better future — one without the death penalty,” Claiborne wrote.
Biden, a Catholic, proposed eliminating the federal death penalty in 2019 during his campaign for president, but he has yet to take sweeping action regarding the promise — which would require support from the Supreme Court or Congress — since beginning his term.
Former President Donald Trump was widely criticized by faith leaders for his administration’s 2020 decision to renew the use of the death penalty in federal cases for the first time since 2003. Among various protests, more than 1,000 faith leaders signed a letter that summer demanding Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr end the practice.
Biden has already heard from fellow Catholics on the issue: During the first Mass he attended as president, the priest delivered a homily blasting the Trump administration’s renewed use of the death penalty and referring to the former commander in chief as an “execution president.”
When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing on Monday whether Biden would support the Supreme Court if it reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she noted that Biden has “grave concerns about whether capital punishment … is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” but referred specific questions about the case to the Department of Justice.
Prison Fellowship has joined forces with criminal justice and prosecutorial organizations to support bipartisan efforts to reduce disparities in sentences that punish Black Americans more harshly than white Americans.
The #EndtheDisparity campaign, a partnership with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has recently focused on the 18-1 ratio in federal sentencing for distributing crack cocaine versus the drug in powdered form. Advocates are pushing for a 1-1 ratio instead.
“We think this is so important an issue and that action is needed now to correct this now long-standing injustice,” said Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman at an online roundtable with journalists on Tuesday (March 9).
After reading from the biblical Book of Proverbs that “The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight,” Ackerman said the disparities in cocaine sentencing are unfair to all Americans but especially to African Americans.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders in 2019 were Black, when African Americans comprise a much lower percentage of the U.S. population.
“Think about it: the African American community represents 13.4% of the citizenry of America but 81% of the people convicted for crack cocaine distribution in 2019 alone were African American,” said Ackerman, leader of the 45-year-old evangelical prison ministry founded by former prisoner and Nixon aide Chuck Colson.
“That’s not right and this has existed too long.”
The campaign comes at a time when legislation is being discussed on Capitol Hill that would end the sentencing disparities.
In January, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the EQUAL Act, whose acronym stands for “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.”
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Don Bacon, R-Neb — introduced the House version of the bill.
Previously, Durbin introduced the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity from 100-to-1, when someone sentenced for distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same amount of time — five years in prison — as someone who was apprehended for distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine.
William Curtis, who was sentenced when the 100-to-1 disparity was in force, told reporters during the online roundtable discussion that he saw the differences in treatment while he was in prison for 20 years and six months for selling $20 and $50 rocks of cocaine.
“I sat in prison many a day and saw people sentenced under powder — white people sentenced under powder — get out of prison, go home, turn around and come back for doing the same thing and then they would get out of prison again, go home, turn around and come back and I’m still here,” he recalled.
Curtis, a Black man, is now continuing the rest of his 327-month sentence under home confinement in Tennessee due to COVID-19 precautions.
FAMM President Kevin Ring said the “political compromise” attained previously to reduce the disparity to 18-to-1 needs to be followed by a complete elimination of the difference in sentencing for distribution of two different forms of the drug.
“The crack powder disparity is the most obnoxious of the discriminatory aspects in our federal justice system,” he said. “Now it is time to finish the job and we think this is a matter of criminal justice and racial justice at a time where our country needs both.”
Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization, noted that more than 40 states already have laws with 1-1 ratios for punishments related to powder and crack cocaine.
Ring and roundtable participant Frank Russo, director of government and legislative affairs of the National District Attorneys Association, called the disparity a “moral issue” that needs to be addressed.
Russo said his association of local and state prosecutors endorses “common-sense reforms such as the EQUAL Act to improve our nation’s justice system and ensure that we are applying justice equitably.”
Malone’s is one of more than 500 signatures on a Faith in Public Life petition delivered to Governor Brian Kemp that condemns proposed changes in voting policies they say will particularly harm people of color.
The Georgia House bill, which passed the Republican-majority body by a vote of 97-72 on Monday, would permit at least one Saturday for voting near the time of a future Election Day but would allow registrars to choose whether to offer voters an additional Saturday or Sunday to vote.
In recent elections in the state, Black church leaders have spearheaded “Souls to the Polls” campaigns that led worshippers directly from their pews to their polling places.
The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice reported this month that Georgia’s Black voters accounted for 36.5% percent of Sunday voters but only 26.8% of people who voted early on other days of the week.
Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said this week there are more than 250 bills related to voting restrictions being considered by state legislators across the country.
Georgia’s House and Senate proposals, which Abrams said would particularly harm people of color, relate not only to Sunday voting but also would eliminate automatic voter registration and no-excuses absentee balloting and would require a copy of a driver’s license with mailed-in ballots.
“Black people, people of color have always been the target of voter suppression because it is when we lift our voices, it is when we participate in elections, it is when we have the right to full citizenship that the trajectory of this nation changes,” Abrams, who has a United Methodist background, said Tuesday on a Facebook Live program hosted by the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper, The Christian Recorder.
In January, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, her state’s first Black and Jewish senators, respectively, were sworn in, giving the U.S. Senate a Democratic majority. Two months before on Election Day, a record Black voter turnout helped flip the Peach State from red to blue for the first time since 1992.
The Georgia state legislators are also proposing limitations that would criminalize volunteers — who are often connected to faith groups — if they provide food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places.
“The lines were so incredibly long that we had multiple reports of people fainting in lines for having to stand up for too long,” said Fair Fight Action organizing director Hillary Holley of the 2020 election, speaking during the news conference. “We saw ambulances have to get called because our elders were passing out while trying to vote.”
The Rev. Cassandra Gould, an AME minister who is the executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, said in an interview that her group has been fighting laws restricting voting, including as a co-plaintiff in a suit against the secretary of state that was dismissed on Tuesday.
Though Missouri doesn’t have early voting as Georgia does, Gould said her organization continues to oppose other kinds of voting restrictions that she says disproportionately affect African Americans. In February, the Missouri House passed a bill that requires voters to provide a photo ID or cast a provisional ballot.
“For me it’s really egregious when there are concentrated efforts to minimize democracy, to actually shrink the electorate,” said Gould, who is also the religious affairs director for the state’s NAACP chapter.
The developments in Georgia came during the anniversary week of Bloody Sunday, when church leaders and other civil rights activists were attacked by state troopers as they fought and bled for voting rights in Alabama in 1965.
Min. Shavonne Williams, an Augusta-based organizing ambassador for Faith in Public Life, recalled that historic time and said voting has long been a unified front for Black church members.
But, in addition to concerns about Black voters, the legislators’ actions have prompted questions about constitutionality and religious freedom, according to Graham Younger, Georgia director for Faith in Public Life.
Early weekend voting opportunities are vital to many residents who are unable for various reasons to vote on a weekday. Limiting which weekend day polls may be open, however, can affect worshippers of a variety of faiths and racial/ethnic groups, including Jewish congregants and members of Seventh-day Adventist churches who cannot vote on Saturdays, due to Sabbath restrictions.
“The choice that counties will now be making is between different groups’ holy days,” Younger said. “Not everyone’s holy day is Sunday.”
Conservative religious groups, including Family Research Council, support “ election integrity ” state-level provisions such as ones that require voter identification and limit no-excuses mail-in voting.
Pastor Mike McBride, a Pentecostal minister based in California who was involved in 2020 Black church voter mobilization initiatives, said organizers are pushing back against legislators seeking to reduce “Souls to the Polls” and other activities.
As they work on signing letters and raising awareness about state proposals, they also will urge passage of the For the People Act, which he hopes will “take the teeth out of a lot of these very wicked Republican schemes.”
“I believe this is tantamount to the church bombings the Ku Klux Klan did to terrorize Black people from engaging in voter registration and engagement,” said McBride, a founder of the Black Church Action Fund, in an interview. “Rather than using church bombs, they’re trying to use these kinds of state policies.”
In this Sunday, July 10, 2016 file photo, parishioners clap during a worship service at the First Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation, in Macon, Ga. There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon _ one black and one white. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)
Most religious Black Americans say understanding the role of religion in the lives of Black people is essential for understanding the African American experience, a new Barna Group survey finds.
Four out of five Black adults in the U.S. who have ties to a faith group agree to some extent (41% “strongly” and 38% “somewhat”) that “to understand the African American experience, it is necessary to understand the role of religious faith in the lives of Black people.”
The percentage of religious Black Americans who agree with that statement has grown to 79% today from 71% in 1996.
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Half of Black church attendees — defined in the study as African Americans who attend a majority Black church — agree “strongly” that faith is a crucial dimension of the Black experience. Additionally, almost 4 in 10 (38%) agree “somewhat” about that.
But a larger percentage of Black church attendees — 69% — agree that pastors of Black churches are the Black community’s most important leaders. A lower percentage — 63% — agreed with that statement in 1996.
Not unexpectedly, a higher percentage of Black church attendees (77%) agree in 2020 about the role of these pastors in Black communities. But Barna noted that “perhaps surprisingly,” higher percentages of some young Black church attendees agree “strongly” compared to Boomers.
The study found that Black church attendees tend to have stronger positive views about the Black church than African American adults in general. When asked, “When you hear ‘The Black Church’ mentioned, what is your immediate response?” Black church attendees selected “important” and “safe” most often. But about one-third of the general Black population chose “old-fashioned,” and about one-fifth chose “stifling.”
There was a noticeable drop in the percentage of respondents who said church involvement was “desirable.” While 90% of Black adults agreed with that description in 1996, only 74% agreed in 2020. The question did not specify Black church involvement, but a higher percentage of Black church attendees (94%) said in 2020 that they consider being active in a church to be desirable.
Two-thirds of Boomers (66%) who are Black church attendees say church involvement is “very desirable,” compared to about half of younger Black church attendees (55% Gen Xers, 51% millennials, 46% Gen Zers). All of the generational numbers are lower among the general Black adult population (49% Boomers, 44% Gen Xers, 39% millennials, 41% Gen Zers).
“The data speak to the challenge and opportunity facing Black faith leaders as they steward the influence of their Church communities for a new era,” the research firm said as it announced its second report.
The findings were based on an online survey, conducted April 22 to May 6, of 1,083 U.S. Black adults and an additional 822 Black church attendees. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
The 1996 findings were based on a phone survey of 802 U.S. Black adults and have a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.