Bowing his head outside the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue cut a newly repentant figure as he publicly prayed for rain to end the region’s historic drought.
“Oh father, we acknowledge our wastefulness,” Perdue said. “But we’re doing better. And I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the creator, the provider of water and land, and to tell him that we will do better.”
Hundreds of Georgians -- ministers and lawmakers, landscapers and office workers -- gathered in downtown Atlanta for the prayer vigil. Some held bibles and crucifixes. Many swayed and linked arms as a choir sang “What a Mighty God We Serve” and “Amazing Grace.”
As Perdue described it, “We have come together, very simply, for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm.”
“It’s got to be worth a shot,” said David Mais, 34, an Atlanta resident who is worried his carpet cleaning business could suffer from the drought. “I do think we need to do a lot more, but hopefully prayer will unite us.”
As metropolitan Atlanta’s water supplies drain to record lows, many across the Southeast have criticized Perdue and other Georgia officials for failing to introduce more stringent conservation measures.
Perdue, who wore a green suit and brown cowboy boots, seemed to acknowledge that the drought afflicting Georgia was a man-made, as well as natural, problem. Georgians, he said, had not done “all we could do in conservation.”
While many hoped that a miracle could end the drought, repentance was a recurring theme.
“We’ve been so busy industrializing that we’ve forgotten how to spiritualize,” Gil Watson, senior minister at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, told the crowd. “We’ve been so busy with our economy and what we can have and what we can possess that we’ve forgotten that you possess it all. Great God, this is your land. We till it for you. We are entrepreneurs for you, dear God.”
Gary Tacon, a businessman who had traveled from New York for the prayer vigil to promote a product called the Wataire Atmospheric Water Generator, was moved. His product creates pure, filtered drinking water from moisture in the air.
“The governor sounded good,” he said, pausing briefly from handing out leaflets to congregation members. “I don’t put a lot of store in prayer, but if it helps to unify, that’s great. People need to be informed.”
More than a few people who attended seemed skeptical that prayer would end the drought.
Lance Warner, 22, a history student at Georgia State University, smirked as members of the crowd stretched their arms to the heavens and cried “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”
“You couldn’t make this up,” he said. “You can’t make up for years of water mismanagement with a prayer session. It’s lunacy!”
About a block way, more than 20 protesters -- some carrying placards saying “All hail Sonny Perdue” and “Is it raining yet?” -- joined a rally organized by the Atlanta Freethought Society. The vigil, they said, violated the principle of separation of church and state.
“The governor is exceeding his constitutional authority,” said Ed Buckner, an atheist and treasurer of the group. “He has no right to set up prayer services on behalf of the people of Georgia, particularly not on the grounds of the state Capitol.”
As the state’s drought has intensified, Perdue, a Baptist, has repeatedly urged Georgians to pray for rain. In June, he prayed for rain in Macon as part of the Georgia Farm Bureau’s day of prayer for agriculture.
Perdue is not the first Georgia governor to pray for an end to drought. In 1986, Gov. Joe Frank Harris joined hundreds of worshipers at Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta to pray for rain.
More than 20 years later, however, a significant number of Georgians appear to be uncomfortable with such prayers. Throughout the day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s blog filled with recriminations from readers who said Perdue should plan, rather than pray.
“God is not an ATM machine you can go to and get whatever you need whenever you ask for it,” said one reader. “Stop developing, seed the clouds, think of some other useful solution.” Another said: “I’m praying for a new GOVERNOR!!!!!”
Gil Rogers, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he worried that hoping for miracles could detract from more practical efforts to conserve water.
“We shouldn’t look at it as ‘Once the rains come we’ll be fine,’ ” he said. “We’d all like to see rain, but this doesn’t get us any closer to sustaining water management in Georgia.”
But Rogers could find one point of agreement with Perdue.
“If he’s saying that Georgians are wasteful, we certainly agree,” he said. “I hope he is truly sorry we’ve been so wasteful. . . . If you look at the way Georgia is growing -- paving over 50 acres a day in the Atlanta area, choking out streams and cutting down forests, we’ve got a long way to go.”