Groups give separate prayers for unity

The Christians prayed, and so did Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Bahais, for one nation under God, indivisible.

But they did so in separate services Thursday honoring the National Day of Prayer, challenging the very meaning of an observance meant to unite all Americans.

At noon, an estimated 125 people gathered for an hourlong service on the steps of City Hall, offering Christian prayers for their city, state and nation. They waved American flags no bigger than post cards. They sang "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful."

Wanda Walker, 54, praised God with shouts of "Amen!" when she heard the Rev. William Keller pray in the name of Jesus Christ.

"Jesus is the way, the truth and the light, and no one can get to God without going through him," said Walker, a member of Full Gospel Temple in Muncie. "Other people can have their prayers, but we are here in Jesus' name."

Other people did have their prayers, four hours later at City Hall. Just as the service was to start, a torrential thunderstorm moved in, forcing an estimated 180 people into the City Council chambers. They sang "America the Beautiful," then offered diverse prayers for the nation -- a Jewish prayer in Hebrew and English, a Muslim prayer in Arabic, a Hindu prayer in Sanskrit, and reflections from Christians, Bahais and a nonbeliever.

Lesley Schaeffer, a Christian from Muncie, came carrying a sign that read "A City That Cannot Pray Together Has No Hope."

"I have never done this before," she said of attending the prayer event. "But I came to show support. The division is ridiculous. To me, it's a form of segregation."

The services were among an estimated 50,000 National Day of Prayer observances in schools, houses of worship and government buildings across the country, including events in Washington attended by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The split in Muncie occurred when members of an interfaith group wanted to join Keller, an evangelical Christian who has organized a National Day of Prayer service in Muncie for 10 years. Keller said only Christians could speak from the microphone at his event, which is affiliated with a national evangelical Christian organization called the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

Interfaith leaders decided to organize their own observance.

Muncie Mayor Dan Canan showed up for both and read the same proclamation. After eight years in office, he has grown accustomed to issuing the statement each May. But this year he tweaked the language to emphasize religious diversity amid what he called unfortunate division in the Muncie religious community.

"Prayer unites people, and this expression of reverence heals and brings its citizens together as a community and a nation," Canan said, reading from the proclamation.

Standing in the back of the crowd at the Christian service, Rashid Shabazz, 60, said he came to see for himself evidence of the religious division he had been reading about in local news reports for weeks. He's a member of the Islamic Center of Muncie.

"It seems to me we should be able to pray together. There is only one God, and we share God," he said. "We're all in this together."

The Rev. Thomas Perchlik, 42, would like there to be one service next year. He is a minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of Muncie and an organizer of the interfaith event.

"This was all worth the effort. It was so beautiful," Perchlik said. "But it's hard to tell what will happen next year."

Keller is holding fast to his conviction that Christians compromise their faith in Jesus when they let the prayers of other faiths share equal footing.

"We will be back next year doing what we have always done -- praying in the name of our savior, Jesus Christ."