Praying for our cities: First, what do we say to neighbors?

People walking along a street In our Summer Series of Guest Writers, I’m pleased to welcome the Rev. Daniel Buttry, an author and an international consultant on peace and justice for American Baptist Churches. This summer, many Americans are praying for their cities. I’ve invited Dan to write about the values behind those prayers. Here are links to his stories: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.


What do you say to people you meet? How about, “I’m praying for Detroit.” I’ve heard that statement. It’s hard not to like such a slogan for my city of Detroit or for any of our cities.
    But, how about saying, “Marhaban”? Do you know that greeting? What do you say to people you encounter? Anything?
    These days there are lots of bumper stickers in my part of Michigan about praying for Detroit—and we do need a lot of prayer around here. But, part of me bristles because I feel the public image of God is taking a beating in Detroit. Bumper-sticker greetings can be cheap, and there has been too much cheap God talk in my town. 
    Just think about the last few months in Detroit! An indicted mayor gave a press conference about his troubles, not in City Hall but in a church. A city councilwoman sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a public meeting that was blatantly partisan, dragging the Almighty into yet another battle where holiness was hardly evident. There were other incidents like this. God was hauled out, again and again, like a fistful of mud to throw at opponents.
    I do support praying for our cities, but I remember my grandmother’s advice (maybe  your grandmother shared this, too): “Pray as if it all depended on God; act as if it all depended on you.”
    So, how might that look? This week I’ll explain some simple steps toward putting more substance behind our prayers. I want to hear from you, too. What do you think of these ideas?
    Here’s one idea: “Marhaban.” That’s what I say when I walk into the Al-Haramin grocery store. It’s our favorite neighborhood fruit and vegetable store, run by a Yemeni family.  The first time I said “Marhaban” a surprised smile erupted on the face of the man at the register.  He didn’t expect this white Anglo guy to great him in Arabic. As I left I said “Shukran”—thank you. 
    Near my home in Hamtramck, which is a small city inside Detroit, we have people from many ethnic groups and many mother tongues. You may not have our mix of Arabic, Bosnian, Bengali and Polish neighbors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you have neighbors who speak a different language. “Marhaban” may not be the right choice for you. How can you greet someone in their native tongue?  Most of us never stop to talk with strangers we meet. We tend to take care of business—and that’s it.
    Maybe a simple greeting won’t change others, although a kind word might change a grumpy person into one who can smile.
    However, those humanizing interactions change me. Step by step, this discipline helps me see my neighbors for who they are. For me to say “Marhaban” brings up an appreciative, honoring spirit within me. I’m saying: Yes my neighbor is different, but I’m glad my neighbor is here. With that spirit, I can beat back the fear and cynicism—and expand a circle of grace and peace.
    How about you? Tell me what happens when you move through your day? Who do you encounter?
    What do you say? What do you wish you could say?

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    Here’s an in-depth interview with Dan Buttry about his work around the world and his books about “Interfaith Heroes.”

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