That the world is in turmoil is something few would disagree. There’s a far-off war threatening global and possible cataclysmic consequences, a pandemic that’s challenged our digital-age hubris, and here in America, bitter political and racial conflicts rage.
Thursday morning, though, a contingent of faith leaders brought respite to more than a hundred people gathered under a canopy of oaks screened by palms. There, in the Legacy Garden of the Woodson African American Museum of Florida, religious leaders praised God, prayed for unity among all people and reinforced a will to right injustices that continue.
Cellist and hospital chaplain Diane Fish offered a soothing prelude to the program, a National Day of Prayer Breakfast organized by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance – “an historic voice of faith leaders for justice and equity.”
Pastor Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church, recognized nationally for his advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable and marginalized, offered a fervent prayer that acknowledged current political rancor.
“Embolden us to speak out for the vulnerable,” he said. “Quiet us to listen to their voices. Convict us to put your people before party. And liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor in your longing for Beloved Community.”
And prayed Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel, “Give us strength to pursue justice.”
In the days before the prayer breakfast, IMA president the Rev. J.C. Pritchett II discussed his vision for the organization’s gathering. It was to be an occasion for Christians, Muslims and Jews, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, Black people and white people, to gather in harmony.
“People need to see that we work together,” he said. “If we can’t be a symbol of that in this community, we need to shut down.”
Among those attending the early morning St. Petersburg program were leaders from secular organizations, including Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld, Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, Pinellas County School Board member Caprice Edmond and Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
Pritchett said he had not expected Mayor Ken Welch or other St. Petersburg officials because of Thursday morning’s City Council meeting.
The special meeting for prayer was especially important considering the state of the world, said Pritchett, who mentioned some of his concerns during an interview earlier this week: looming global conflict; the “chipping away” at democratic norms; erosion of voting rights; gun violence; the affordable housing crisis; Covid-19; and the loss of innocent lives in Ukraine.
It wasn’t an exhaustive list. Thursday, he prayed about suicides and opioid and fentanyl overdoses.
That morning, too, his wife, Karen Davis-Pritchett, brought words of solace to the grieving. She prayed for comfort for those suffering because of the loss of loved ones and for others experiencing other types of difficulties, such as the loss of jobs or finances. And she prayed for the people who support those going through crises.
The IMA, which describes itself as an organization dedicated “to bringing faith leaders together for positive change in their communities,” first observed the National Prayer Breakfast in 2019, at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg.
Next year, said Pritchett, the organization hopes to hold the program in its new $1 million center that will rise not far from the Woodson Museum on 22nd Street S, in the historic African-American business and entertainment district known as the Deuces.
The coronavirus pandemic halted plans to hold the prayer breakfast in 2020 and again in 2021. Pritchett said he had hoped to honor one of IMA’s own, the Rev. Curtiss L. Long, who had been senior pastor of New Faith Free Methodist Church when he died in 2019. Besides being active in the IMA, the respected pastor had been a member of the Gathering of Pastors, a group of clergy that meets each Saturday to pray.
Thursday was the first opportunity Pritchett had to keep his promise to honor the late pastor. The Rev. Kenny Irby of Historic Bethel AME Church memorialized Pastor Long as “a soldier and warrior of justice and peace in our battle against darkness in high places – not against flesh and blood.”
The pastor’s widow, Alice Long, and members of his former congregation were present Thursday. The church’s new leader, Pastor Liz Siplin, also a member of the IMA, prayed for all religious leaders that morning.
At 85, Apostle Clarice Pennington of the Church of Love and Hope is IMA’s oldest member. She offered an all-encompassing prayer in the shaded garden. “I come,” she said, “interceding for unity, unity in our city, in our state, our nation and in our world.”