On a chilly December night, roughly 100 people gathered in the center of Washington Square Park. Strolling in from different directions, they knelt on the ground. They sang songs. They shared some bread. They occupied the park- but only for an hour.
The 7:14 prayer mob -- its name is based on 2 Chronicles 7:14, which says that if people pray God will "heal their land" -- was a global event. Groups also gathered to pray publicly in Washington D.C., Chicago, and London. C.J. Guinness, who runs an investment and venture capital firm, plans to create more opportunities for Christians to pray together. "We believe that history belongs to women and men of prayer," said Guinness.
With that, some in the crowd closed their eyes and clasped their hands. Others looked up into the night sky with lifted hands. And for an hour, the group prayed together for Church unity, poverty, and political leaders. Guinness counted at least 15 different church groups at the "prayer mob."
A week later on the crisp afternoon of Thursday, Dec. 8, a similar group of pastors, church members, and council members gathered to pray on the steps of City Hall. This time, they had a more specific purpose: To rally support against the eviction of religious groups from public school buildings.
Over sixty churches currently rent public schools as meeting places for services, as do Jewish and Muslim congregations. Courts have declared the ban legal, and the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 5 refused to hear an appeal. If the ban isn't overturned, these congregations will have to leave these buildings by Feb. 12, 2012. Many of them do not have anywhere else to meet and cannot afford commercial rent.
Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who is also a Bronx pastor, is leading the legislative efforts to overturn the ban and has the support of other council members who spoke at the rally and raised important concerns. After a prayer, Cabrera spoke against religious discrimination. Behind him, some people carried signs that read "Don't Make My Church Homeless" and "Freedom of Access."
Cabrera's bill would prevent school districts from excluding groups from meeting on school propertybecause their viewpoints include religious content. Several Council members spoke at the rally,insisting that in a city oriented to diversity, religious groups should not be systematically excluded.
Others raised economic concerns: Why would the city enforce such a ban when the Department of Education needs the money from rent-paying religious groups? They also spoke of churches running after-school programs for youth in their communities and helping the poor and homeless.
Cabrera's Assembly Bill 8800 would prevent school districts from excluding groups from meeting on school property because their viewpoints include religious content.
"In a city as diverse and oriented to pluralism as New York City, it should not be that religious groups from all across the spectrum should be systematically excluded as parts of the community," said Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Jordan Lorence.