As newspapers are generally secular animals, the words I push together
in this column have purposely never contemplated matters of spiritual
faith in our fair twin cities. That's because in a nation where the
freedom of religion is revered, the nuances of different faiths, I think,
are best wrestled with in the home and in the chapel. In the mosque, the
synagogue and the temple. And, certainly, within the private sanctuary of
But some days ago, following a lengthy phone chat with Aviva Goelman
-- the vivacious executive director of the Costa Mesa Senior Center -- it
occurred to me that an exception might be in order.
Goelman was clearly distressed over a dust up that swept through the
senior center late last month over her decision to change the center's
lunchtime prayer format. For several months, it seems, senior center
member Norma Bernal led lunch guests in formal Christian prayer,
concluding her worship with a reference to Jesus Christ. Now, as I'm a
practicing Christian, this is a wonderful ritual with real and compelling
meaning in my spiritual life.
Nevertheless, here's the problem: According to news reports, some
attending the lunches are not Christians. Many are Jews. And a few are
Buddhists. It may well be that others are Muslims. Which is why it
occurred to several of the Christian members who attend the luncheons
that Bernal's formal prayer ceremony -- certainly an appropriate
expression of her faith, and had I been there, of mine -- had the
appearance of presuming or promoting Christianity over Judaism and Islam
When the issue was brought before Goelman and the center's Seniors
Advisory Council, the executive director told me the decision was made to
make the prayer time a moment of silence. In this way, all in attendance
would have the opportunity to devote themselves to quiet worship as an
expression of their own personal spiritual faith.
The move, quite predictably in this season of exposed religious
nerves, touched off a small skirmish. Bernal complained to a local
newspaper that the moment of silence format was stripping her of her
right to free speech and the free expression of her religious faith. A
center member and volunteer quit over the flap. Still others peddled the
notion that Goelman should step down.
Frank Champlin, a regular at the senior center since 1997, made the
implication in the same newspaper Bernal griped to (not the Daily Pilot)
that the believers in non-Christian faiths should essentially grin and
bear it. "This is a Christian nation," he was quoted to say. "When in
Rome, do as the Romans do."
I'd beg to differ. Certainly our nation's founding fathers were
predominantly Christian. But they had the wisdom -- backed by the painful
memory of religious persecution, among other things, under the bizarre
reign of King George III -- to vest Americans with the right to freely
practice any faith. Or none at all. Are we a religious nation? Yes. Are
we a Christian nation? No more than we are a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or
Hindu nation. Which is why, in my book, Goelman -- a refreshing breeze of
integrity and competency at the center following a string of either
crooked or incapable leaders -- made the wise and right decision. And
there are several reasons why I find that to be the case.
Chief among them is the not-so-small matter of the U.S. Constitution.
It remains, thankfully, that the United States will pass no law with
respect to the establishment of a religion in our land. The U.S. Supreme
Court has interpreted that to mean, in part, that public and private
organizations in receipt of public funds aren't to be the houses of
worship for a specific faith. And since the Costa Mesa Senior Center is
partially underwritten with city, state and federal grants, Goelman's
moment-of-silence decision is constitutionally reasonable and just.
Against that canvas, Goelman acted smartly for purely practical terms.
I mean, one might argue that to fairly allow public expressions of
Christian prayer before meals at the center, she'd need to sanction the
public recitation by the center's Jews of the birkhot ha-na'ah before the
meal and the birkat ha-mazon after. Buddhist members would need time for
meditation, and Muslims for salah. Under that kind of regime, the lunch
hour would be in danger of crowding supper time.
All of which leaves me with two impressions as we wrap up this rare
excursion into religion. It seems to me that if we are confident and
assured in whatever faith we live and espouse, we shouldn't find it
necessary to insist on foisting public prayer rituals on those who don't
share our faith. Particularly when we are in interfaith settings. To do
otherwise, from my experience, more often serves to alienate rather than
indoctrinate. I think, too, that the form prayer takes isn't nearly so
important as the pure act of praying.
Prayer -- whether spoken or offered in silence -- is still a
meaningful expression of faith. And my experience tells me that's what
God is really interested in.
* Byron de Arakal is a writer and communications consultant. He lives
in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays. Readers may reach him with
news tips and comments via e-mail at o7 firstname.lastname@example.org .