The Democrats who came to worship at the first-ever interfaith gathering on the eve of their national convention were not just going through the motions to show the news media that Democrats have faith too. I knew I was in for some serious worship when I saw all the church ladies in their wonderful hats. I don't mean those political straw hats with red, white and blue hat bands. When I say hats, I mean churchgoing hats with broad brims and large bows. These women formed the core of the praise rhythm, standing and lifting their hands as the choirs sang. The amen chorus was strong.
But there were not only church hats; there were yarmulkes, there were headscarves, there were Hawaiian shirts, shirts of kente cloth, saris, and, of course, cowboy hats. And there were plenty of people like me in plain denim and T-shirts. This large crowd nearly filled the Wells Fargo theater at the Convention Center in Denver and they stayed for almost three hours, listening and praying, singing and shouting.
In some ways, however, the service was typical of interfaith gatherings. Rabbis, imams, Protestant pastors and Catholic priests took turns leading the group in opening and closing liturgies, reading sacred texts or giving longer presentations on the theme of "Our Sacred Responsibility: to our Children, to our Neighbor, to our Nation, and to Our World."
Yet, there was a lot more demand for action than is typical of many interfaith gatherings I have attended. Normally such interfaith events feature a series of religious leaders who each get up in turn and say tolerant things about each other. This worship was called "Faith in Action" and each major speaker made no bones about it. The real commonality among the presenters was the conviction that faith without works is dead. That was made exceptionally clear.
Remarkably, given the context, there were no policy statements or appeals. There was plenty of passion, however.
Bishop Charles E. Blake, Presiding Bishop of the six-million member Church of God in Christ and senior pastor of the West Angeles church of 24,000 members, gave a strong appeal for putting children at the center of our care. He ought to know. As founder and CEO of Save Africa's Children, he oversees the support of more than 200,000 children. Following Bishop Blake, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, made his case that we should not bemoan ignorance, but spread wisdom as the way we can fulfill our responsibility to our neighbor. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the first woman and the first convert to Islam to become president of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), talked quietly but compellingly of the power of student exchanges to change minds and the need for all Americans to stand up for each other.
But I think nearly everyone who attended this DNC interfaith gathering would agree that it was Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and the well-known author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, who really preached. Her assigned topic was "Our Sacred Responsibility to Our Nation" and the Sister didn't waste time on interfaith niceties. Instead, she asked, "What do we see by the dawn's early light?" We see the death penalty, she said, applied in a racist, classist fashion to those who are the most vulnerable. And it doesn't make us any safer.
Sister Helen didn't really shout, but you could have heard a pin drop in the large theater when she leaned over the podium and said that what the death penalty reveals about the soul of America is that we have come to believe that violence can solve all our problems. Hence we torture, we make war and we steadily become less safe.
If we actually taught peace instead of war, she argued, and chose negotiation over bombing, and quit executing people in prison "death houses," then, "When we go to China and lecture them about human rights, we could hold our heads up." She was interrupted at that point and several other times in her address by sustained applause.
When she finished, she received a standing ovation that went on and on. As the clapping died down, the middle aged white man in the plaid shirt and string tie sitting next to me said quietly, almost to himself, "That's what I came to hear."
It will be interesting to see, in these next days at the Democratic National Convention, if there are any connections that get made between this interfaith gathering and the regular convention events. There are also faith panels on Tuesday and Thursday.
And what, I wonder, do the other convention delegates think of all this emphasis on faith? I plan to ask around and see what they say.
"On Faith" panelist Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is paying her own way to the Democratic National Convention as a registered Democrat and an unpaid volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign. She is scheduled to speak at a faith panel Tuesday on separation of church and state issues.