BYRON DE ARAKAL -- Between The Lines

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

the individual.

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

and Buddhism.

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 byronwriter@msn.comf7 .

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