Prayer is a powerful practice, as many who do it regularly can attest to. But in addition to being a powerful personal practice, prayer can play a role in strengthening even the most diverse communities, according to a new study led by a University of Connecticut sociologist Ruth Braunstein, Richard L. Wood from the University of New Mexico and Brad R. Fulton from Duke University.
Scheduled to appear in the August edition of the American Sociological Review, the study found that interfaith prayer practices played a key role in bridging cultural differences within diverse faith-based community organizing groups in the United States.
“The prayer practices we observed appear to play a crucial role in binding participants together across significant racial and socioeconomic differences,” Braunstein said in a release. “They do this by being inclusive of multiple faith traditions, celebrating the diversity of the group, and encouraging individuals to interact with each other.”
These findings may come as a surprise in a world where religion and prayer often divide people with differing views. Braunstein found, however, that “bridging cultural practices," like prayer, worked to create a new sense of shared identity within groups.
"Most talk of diversity rests on an understanding of "differences" that are rooted in fixed categories, like racial groups, genders, social classes, etc.," Braunstein told HuffPost.
"In reality, however, one way that groups navigate diversity is by defining new identity categories, which cut across, transcend, or celebrate members’ differences, often by highlighting what distinguishes them from people outside of their group. Generally speaking, this suggests that things like difference and sameness are really very fluid."
Prayer only works as a practice for transcending difference, though, when it manages to incorporate values from multiple faiths and backgrounds, Braunstein said. In the faith-based community organizing coalition where Braunstein conducted her research, leaders and clergy often highlighted the group's shared identities as "people of faith" while still recognizing their differences. They did this in several ways:
"One common way was by inviting multiple clergy representing different faith traditions to offer prayers. In some cases, clergy also instructed audience members to direct prayers to their respective understandings of God. For example, a priest once called everyone to prayer by saying: “If you are Jewish, stand for Adonai. If you are Muslim, stand for Allah. If you are Christian like me, stand for Jesus.”
Some created interfaith prayers by avoiding references to any particular religious tradition, and instead incorporating non-religious texts —like news articles, poetry, and social criticism—into their reflections. Beyond the content of their prayers, certain forms of collective prayer – in which people were asked to shake hands, hug their neighbor, or learn new prayer practices together – also encouraged diverse participants to interact with one another or to share experiences that drew the group together."
Prayer is a meaningful practice for faith-based groups, Braunstein said, but it won't necessarily work in secular organizations where spirituality isn't a part of the group's shared identity. There are other activities diverse groups can do, however, to build solidarity and develop shared "rituals" important to the group's identity.
"These practices, which could involve sharing meals or making music together," Braunstein said, "would likely emerge over time as participants reflected on the qualities that unite everyone in the group and develop shared rituals that are meaningful to everyone."
No one is putting the power of "bridging cultural practices" to the test more prominently than Pope Francis, who hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to a peacemaking "prayer summit" at the Vatican in June. Though divided by significant religious and political differences, these three world leaders joined together in prayer as a display of their commitment to the peacemaking process.
"All my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for the generations to come," Peres said during the service. "Let us all join hands and make it happen.”