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Tina Prayer

TIFFANY LANE / MEDILL

Tina Van Yzendroon wants people to do more than pray on Thursday, which is the National Day of Prayer. She wants them to act.


Have you prayed today? What about Thursday? That’s the official day, you know

by Tiffany Lane
May 03, 2011


What are you doing Thursday? Does praying make its way onto your to-do list? No? Not even if you know that Thursday is the 59th annual  National Day of Prayer?

If your answer is still no, or if you simply want to know what the day is and means, this story is for you.

Tina Van Yzendoorn, who works at First St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Near North Side, said the day is relevant to people of all faiths.

“If we could all pause and see the needs of our country,” she said, “hopefully it provokes people to action, not just to pause.”

But something as seemingly well-intended as a national day of prayer is not without its controversy. Some people contend that it’s a coming together of only some people, those of Christian faiths, and exclusionary of others.

Not everyone takes the extreme view, however.

Khaled Keshk, associate professor of Islam studies at DePaul University, said the day of prayer is important for the nation.

“I think that it’s great and wonderful,” Keshk said.  “I wish that the president and government would continue to celebrate many of these religious holidays that are multicultural and our pluralistic society observes.”

He added, “As a Muslim, I am not threatened or disappointed by the National Day of Prayer even though it is very Judeo-Christian based.”

The day was formalized when President Harry S. Truman approved a resolution by Congress in 1952 for a National Day of Prayer after a crusade by the Rev. Billy Graham. Members of Congress rationalized that the founders prayed when the constitution was drafted, so voted to bring it back and make it an annual event. 

Other presidents have carried on the tradition.

“I call upon every citizen of this great Nation to gather together on that day in homes and places of worship to pray, each after his or her own manner, for unity of the hearts of all mankind,” President Ronald Reagan said in a speech January 1983.

Reagan amended the law in 1988 to have the day held the first Thursday of May. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of a nearly 228 million population, about 173 million Americans identified as being Christian.  Nearly 2.6 million identified as Jewish and 1.3 million identified as being Muslim.  About 1.6 million labeled themselves as atheists.

Rick Crawford of Chicago said he is spiritual but does not follow any specific faith.  The Columbia College student said many people of this generation do not follow religion.

“I definitely see there’s so much distraction. There’s little self-reflection and more shallowness,” he said.

But others are toubled because of the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state.  Crawford said he is in favor of the annual prayer day but it should include atheists.

“If the government recognizes the National Day of Prayer it would have to go both ways and have a day for non-religious individuals,” he said.

The Rev. Danielle Thompson, from the St. Chrysostom's Catholic Church in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago, agreed that the day could be more open to individuals such as atheists.

The National Day of Prayer could better include other groups “if it was a day to recognize every person’s best wish for humanity or Earth,” she said, “that would be as broadly inclusive as everyone would hope it to be.”

Thompson said even atheists and similar individuals have some belief even if it is not in a God or higher power, and this should be recognized.

Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld of the Beth Chaverim Humanistic Jewish Community in Deerfield said the National Day of Prayer is not important to have, since she said there is imbalance.

“People who came up with this idea didn’t think people going to mosque or who aren’t Christian will participate,” she said.

Kornfeld, whose community does not take part in worship service since it is humanistic, said it would be better to have a national day of service during which people would help in shelters and kitchens around the country.