Puny Pastor Prays for President?

Via on Nov 6, 2012
Photo: Rebecca Carlson

 It’s official. My life is surreal.

Last Tuesday I received a call from a representative of the Obama campaign inviting me to provide the prayer of invocation before the President spoke at his massive rally at the Coors Event Center at University of Colorado (C.U.) in Boulder later that week.

Since my parents didn’t raise any dummies, I said yes.

On Thursday night of last week, I was ushered through a cloth, air-conditioned corridor in that hot gym along with several other VIPs (including Senator Mark Udall, Representative Jared Polis and State Senator Michael Bennet). Polis warmed up the crowd, and before I knew it, a “voice of God” announcement rang out through the P.A. system saying, “And now, to give the prayer of invocation, Pastor Roger Wolsey.”

I took a deep breath, walked onto a red-carpeted stage, and prayed before a crowd of 10,000 people (easily eight to nine thousand more than I’ve ever spoken in front of before).

Now, many, including myself, have been asking:

“How the heck did a campus minister who serves a rather smallish campus ministry (currently averaging less than 20 people on Sunday nights, and no more than 120 different students coming through our doors for the various activities that we offer at Wesley Chapel during the course of a week), and who isn’t even registered as a Democrat, get asked to offer a prayer before the President of the United States spoke?!

Answer. I. Don’t. Know.

The best I can do is to speculate and make a few deductions. About five weeks ago, I received a call from a representative from the Obama campaign inquiring about the possibility of renting our facility for their volunteers and some staffers to use to make phone calls during the weeks before the election. We had several pleasant conversations, but when they learned that Wesley Chapel was going to be a voting/polling station, the conversations ended.

Then, about two weeks ago, I volunteered to make phone calls for a few hours at one of the offices that their campaign has set up around town. I sat in a small room with one other person, a young woman named Lindsay. After about a half hour of hearing me chat with people on the phone, she said,

“Are you the Roger Wolsey from Wesley Chapel?”

“Why yes, I am. How did you know that?”

“Well, I remember that we were considering using your chapel as a place to do some work.”

“Oh. Cool! You’ve got a good memory!”

“Say, we’re seeking someone to offer a prayer before a VIP comes to town.”

“Well, be sure to vet that person and their speech! You don’t want to have a repeat of what happened at the end of the Democratic National Convention this summer when that priest offered a prayer that went against Obama’s positions!”

“You’re absolutely right. Roger, we don’t.”

That was about the extent of the conversation.

You can imagine my surprise when I received that phone call last Tuesday from someone I’d never heard of before… someone high up. Turns out, Lindsay was the head of Obama’s campaign in Boulder and she must’ve said something to someone as, apparently, they vetted, gulp, me!

(I doubt if it was very hard to do. If you google me, there’s a bevy of blogs that I’ve written along with reviews of my book “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity.” My writings are largely theological (progressive Christianity), but some of them wax political—and a quick visit to my Facebook page would’ve cinched it for them. I’m pretty liberal.)

After nearly shooting chocolate milk out my nose in my booth at IHOP—and regaining at least some degree of composure—I said, “I would be absolutely honored! How long would you like it to be? 30 seconds or so?” “No, two-three minutes. Don’t make it partisan.” “Would you like me to write up a prayer to have you read before Thursday night?” “Yes.” “Will do!”

Because writing a prayer that would be fitting for a national president and his staffers to hear is a daunting task, I posted a question on my Facebook pages (my personal one, the one for Wesley Fellowship, and the one for my book) asking my virtual community to offer some input to help the prayer be the best it could be. Holy moly did people ever respond! I couldn’t keep up with all of the suggestions.

I read through several of them, and retreated to a quiet room in C.U.’s law library to craft it. I prayed for about five minutes, then wrote it in about three. It just flowed out.

Here was the proposed invocation:

Holy One. We are gathered here on this exciting evening as your children. We’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, agnostics and atheists. We are are young and old; gay and straight. We are currently housed and currently unhoused. We are all of us Yours, and You love us. Lord, we invoke Your bold and gracious presence in this place and at this time, as we name and address high and lofty matters of national and international concern. We ask you for your continued blessing in the lives of our President Barack Obama and his family, and our hearts are with the victims of the storm on the east coast of this nation and with the many emergency responders and relief workers who are giving their all to help people in need. O God, this is a time of tension and excitement in our country as we approach the dawn of an important election. Be with all of the campaign workers and volunteers of all of the political parties as they enter into the home stretch of their passionate labors. And no matter how the elections turn out, may the citizens of our great country focus on what unites us, may we put our love of country ahead of our specific agendas, may the spirit of divisiveness fade away, and may we resume our efforts to help you bring about a world where peace and justice shine, and where war and injustice are no more. God we lift these prayers to you. Amen.

I submitted the prayer to “Jennifer” and waited several long hours.

The next morning I saw the following message in my inbox:

“Hello Pastor, I work with Jenn Ridder on the Obama Campaign. Your final invocation remarks for the event with President are below. Thank you so much!”

INVOCATION

POTUS Event in Boulder 11-1-12

Lord, we invoke your bold and gracious presence in this place and at this time, as we name and address high and lofty matters of national and international concern. We ask you for your continued blessing in the lives of our President Barack Obama and his family, and our hearts are with the victims of the storm on the east coast of this nation and with the many emergency responders and relief workers who are giving their all to help people in need. O God, this is a time of excitement in our country as we approach the dawn of an important election. Be with all of the campaign workers and volunteers of all of the political parties as they enter into the home stretch of their passionate labors. And no matter how the elections turn out, may the citizens of our great country focus on what unites us, may we put our love of country ahead of ourselves and may we resume our efforts to help you bring about a world where peace and justice shine, and where war and injustice are no more. God we lift these prayers to you. Amen.

Sergio Gonzales

Political Director—OFA Colorado

Oh dear. They edited it!

I felt a strange mixture of upset and understanding. I’m sure the last thing that the Obama campaign would want is to be associated with another radical “Reverend Jeremiah Wright” type message which might cause an unwelcome distraction or guilt by association for the president.

I felt the need to not be a doormat so I pushed back:

Sergio,

I must admit that I’m surprised to see that the invocation prayer that I proposed was edited. It was only two minutes in length and was told I had up to three. The words celebrating diversity and inclusion that were removed were ones that I feel are needed and helpful—especially in Boulder. But I understand that there are political reasons, wisdom and insight that your team brings to bear on these matters.

I’d like to propose the following revisions to the edited version:

Holy One, Gracious Spirit, the One in Whom we live and move and have our being, we invoke Your bold and gracious presence in this place and at this time as we name and address important matters of national and international concern. We ask You for Your continued blessing in the lives of our President Barack Obama and his family, be with our nation’s soldiers who are far away from home and in harm’s way. Lord, our hearts are also with the victims of the storm on the east coast of this nation and with the many emergency responders and relief workers who are giving their all to help people in need. O God, this is a time of excitement in our country as we approach the dawn of an important election. Be with all of the campaign workers and volunteers of all of the political parties as they enter into the home stretch of their passionate labors. And no matter how the elections turn out, may the citizens of our great country focus on what unites us, may we put our love of country ahead of ourselves, and may we resume our efforts to help You bring about a world where peace and justice shine, and where war and injustice are no more. God we lift these prayers to you. Amen. 

Is this agreeable?

Sergio agreed.

Now, there was one suggestion that I saw that someone added to the cause on my Facebook page—a word from a friend who’s a professional actress and red-nose clown. “Perhaps try to end with something funny—maybe even a joke?”

So, with that in mind, and with the rush of seeing that mass of mostly young C.U. students, I felt the urge to squeeze in an unvetted remark at the end of the prayer.

You can see my prayer by clicking on this link to an article in the Colorado Daily Camera.

Scroll down to the bottom of the article and click on the video posted at the bottom. My prayer begins at the 4:45 point, after Representative Polis’s speech. (I start out with my hands held up in the air, but then shift to holding on to the podium—that’s when I felt I was about to pass out and needed a crutch to hold onto to keep me going! No joke).

Some may wonder about the appropriateness for praying at a political rally. Political rallies are private events, not governmental ones. The separation of church & state (which I believe in) is maintained. Moreover, to the extent that the Democratic party has been perceived as “secular,” “a-religious” or even “anti-religious,” it’s important for that party to remind the nation, and themselves, that the GOP doesn’t have a monopoly on God and that there is great benefit for the power of prayer when it comes to fostering unity and perseverance.

Finally, I made a point not to be partisan in the prayer and to offer a pastoral presence to the actual needs of the people gathered there, and for our nation as a whole. I should also say that if any of the other candidates had invited me to pray, I would’ve said yes, and prayed almost exactly the same prayer. Perhaps exactly. 

So, I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame. Back to playing foosball and listening to college students share about their stresses, struggles, hopes and dreams. Who knows, one of them may be running for president someday. If so, they’ll need our prayers.

Roger

P.S. I met Sergio in person at the event. He looked to be all of 25 or 26. God bless him and his future.

 Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Roger Wolsey

Roger Wolsey is a free-spirited GenX-er who thinks and feels a lot about God and Jesus. He’s a progressive Christian who identifies with people who consider themselves as being “spiritual but not religious.” He came of age during the “Minneapolis sound” era and enjoyed seeing The Replacements, The Jayhawks, Husker Du, The Wallets, Trip Shakespeare, Prince, and Soul Asylum in concert—leading to strong musical influences to his theology. He earned his Masters of Divinity degree at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. Roger is an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church and he currently serves as the director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at C.U. in Boulder, CO. He was married for ten years, divorced in 2005 and now co-parents a delightful 10-year old son. Roger loves live music, hosting house concerts, rock-climbing, yoga, centering prayer, trail-running with his dog Kingdom, dancing, camping, riding his motorcycle, blogging, and playing his trumpet in ska bands and music projects. He's recently written a book Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity

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3 Responses to “Puny Pastor Prays for President?”

  1. Roger Wolsey says:

    pps. I should also mention what happened to me later that night, an hour after the event. I was walking across campus back toward my home when a family of 4 noticed me and recognized me as the one who offered that prayer of invocation. The mother told me that their family lives in Boulder, they aren't religious, and that "this was the very first prayer that her children had ever heard — and it was really good! Thank you for being so inclusive and loving in it!"

    The opportunity to speak before the President speaks — very cool. Getting kudos from an atheist about my prayer — priceless.

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