The Benedictine motto “ora et labora” reminds us of the importance of balancing prayer and work – of the idea of prayer as a complement to action, a both/and rather than an either/or. Here, Emma Halgren reflects on four people whose lives of action for social change were undergirded by prayer.
Leymah Gbowee was 17 and on the cusp of a bright new chapter – university study, adventure, hopeful of fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor – when civil war broke out in Liberia in 1990. In the years that followed, she experienced the horrors of war and the fear and upheaval it brought to her family and her country. But, fuelled by her Christian faith, she also found the courage to lead Christian and Muslim women in a nonviolent movement that played a key role in ending Liberia’s civil war in 2003.
In her memoir, she describes how in 2002 she had a dream in which she heard a voice “and it was talking to me – commanding me: ‘Gather the women to pray for peace!’”1 What started with a small group of women from local churches meeting weekly to pray grew to become an interfaith movement, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.
In a 2012 interview, she described why prayer had been so important to the reconciliation process in Liberia, saying: “There’s something special about prayer itself that changes things. It consoles you in your faith and opens doors. Reconciliation is often a spiritual process … In order for reconciliation to take place, you have to be reconciled with God, yourself, and those who offended you.”2
In 2009 she gave a lecture at Eastern Mennonite University in the US, where she had undertaken what she called a “transformative” summer course on restorative justice in 2004 and later completed a masters degree in conflict transformation and peacebuilding. She said her Christian faith had been pivotal in her peacebuilding work: “I didn’t get there by myself … or anything I did as an individual, but it was by the grace and mercy of God … They have this song, ‘Order my steps in your ways, dear Lord’, and every day as I wake up, that is my prayer, because there’s no way that anyone can take this journey as a peace builder, as an agent of change in your community, without having a sense of faith … As I continue this journey in this life, I remind myself: All that I am, all that I hope to be, is because of God.”3
Marking Aboriginal Sunday – on the Sunday before 26 January – has become increasingly common in churches in recent years. Doing so can be an act of solidarity with First Nations people, and it shines a light on the life, ministry and advocacy of Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper, who campaigned for land rights and political representation for First Nations people, and issued a challenge to Australian churches to set aside a day each year to pray for Aboriginal people.
William Cooper had converted to Christianity in 1884. As a teenager, he came to know a Christian missionary couple at the Maloga mission on the banks of the Murray River. They shared with him their theological understanding that all people are God’s children, including Aboriginal people.4 For someone who had witnessed and experienced poverty and racism, and seen the effects of violence and dispossession on First Nations people, this was a powerful and galvanising message.
After church one evening, he went to Daniel Matthews and said: “I must give my heart to God.” The two men knelt to pray, and Cooper said that he “had peace with God, through Christ”.
He was politically active throughout his life: in 1933 – aged in his 70s – he helped to establish the Australian Aborigines League, which campaigned for Indigenous people to enjoy the same rights and privileges as other Australians. In an interview in 1937, he described why it was so important that Indigenous people had such an organisation representing them: “instead of lifting up our people the early comers to our country destroyed them... now our people have nothing: all was taken from them.”5
Between 1933 and 1938, Cooper gathered nearly 2000 signatures for a petition to the King asking for Aboriginal representation in the federal parliament. And on 26 January 1938, when much of Australia was marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of British people in Australia, Cooper and other Aboriginal leaders met for a Day of Mourning, and called for churches to continue to set aside a day every year, on the Sunday closest to Australia Day, for prayer and solidarity with Indigenous people.
Please enlarge our hearts to love each other,
to love our neighbour, to love our enemy as our friend.
Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up.
If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens.
If we love enough, we are going to light a fire in the hearts of others.
And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us.
It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other.
“I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying …”. So reflected Dorothy Day in 1925, around the time she began to reconnect with the Christian faith she had been baptised into as a child.
Dorothy Day had encountered poverty as a young person, in the streets of Chicago where she lived with her family, and it moved her deeply. She also had a profound experience of God when she was little. She described playing in the attic on a Sunday afternoon with her sister, pretending to be a teacher as she read aloud from a Bible she had found. “Slowly, as I read, a new personality impressed itself on me. I was being introduced to someone and I knew almost immediately that I was discovering God.”6
To try to live in imitation of Christ, and to encounter Christ in everyday moments, became cornerstones of her spirituality after she converted to Catholicism in 1927. Her usual daily practice included prayer and meditating on Scripture, sometimes for several hours. Dorothy Day lived out her faith in a very hands-on way. In 1933 she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement, which stood in solidarity with the poor, taught non-violence, and established hospitality houses – first in New York, and then around the United States and internationally – where the homeless and poor could find shelter and food. She herself lived in voluntary poverty in these houses, and she was arrested numerous times in her life, up to the age of 73, for her activism against war and poverty and the systems that fostered them.
In such a full and busy life, in which she daily confronted the reality of poverty and the inevitable setbacks of working for social change, she was honest about the fact that it sometimes took effort and intention to make space for prayer. Reflecting on Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:40 (“Could you not watch with me one hour?”), she once wrote: “That, I have resolved, is to be my motto for the coming year … I shall remember this whenever I am tired and want to omit prayer … The thing to remember is not to read so much or talk so much about God, but to talk to God. To practise the presence of God.”
Her faith was rooted, above all, in love. She wrote, “To work to increase our love for God and for our fellow man… this is a lifetime job. We are never going to be finished ... It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”
A month before he was assassinated, Oscar Romero said: “A Church that does not join the poor in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them is not the true Church of Jesus Christ.”
And in what was to be his last sermon before he was killed while celebrating Mass in San Salvador on 24 March 1980, he urged soldiers of the government to lay down their arms, reminding them that “each of you is one of us. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill’”.
This prophetic leader – like many other clergy in El Salvador at the time – paid with his life for speaking out against a ruthless government that presided over human rights abuses and violence against the poor, especially farmers.
Romero spoke from the pulpit against injustice and he knew the power of prayer. In one homily he said: “If only we had people of prayer among those who manage the destiny of the country and the destiny of the economy! If only they relied more on God and his techniques rather than on their own human technology, we would have a world that the church dreams about, a world without injustices, a world respectful of rights, a world where all people generously participate, a world without repression, a world without torture...”.
There is a prayer that has become known as The Romero Prayer, even though it was not written by Romero nor ever spoken by him. It encapsulates key elements of his theology and spirituality. It reads in part: “We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.”9
1. Leymah Gbowee with Carol Mithers, Mighty Be Our Powers, Beast Books, NY, 2011, p. 122.
2. “The Ceasefire Prayer Behind Leymah Gbowee's Nobel Peace Prize”, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/aprilweb-only/prayer-nobel-peace-prize.html
3. "The Faith of a Peacebuilder – Leymah Gbowee", https://emu.edu/now/podcast/2009/10/23/the-faith-of-a-peacebuilder-leymah-gbowee/
4. Bain Attwood, William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2021, p. 38.
5. Quoted in \Attwood, William Cooper, p. xii.
6. “An Introduction to Dorothy Day”, America: The Jesuit Review https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2001/08/27/introduction-dorothy-day
7. “Lord, Teach Me to Pray: Excerpts from Dorothy Day’s Writings” https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/prayer/lord-teach-me-to-pray