Ask the Expert: Praying with Non-Jews

What's an appropriate ecumenical prayer?

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Question: Sometimes for my job I have to attend events that include ecumenical prayers. Typically this means that someone gets up at the beginning or end and offers some kind of prayer in English. Sometimes these prayers include references to Jesus, which makes me very uncomfortable. Recently I have been asked to lead the prayer at such an event, and I don’t know what’s appropriate to say in this kind of setting. How should I figure out what to say?
–Marcia, Boston

expertAnswer: Ah, the old “ecumenical prayer.” Is it me, or do those prayers often come off as regular Christian prayers, just with less Jesus?

Praying in an interfaith setting can be a tricky issue. I think most of the problems in these kinds of scenarios come from people who get up there and wing it, never thinking about how their words might strike someone from a very different religious background. So by thinking ahead of time about this, already you’re ahead of the curve.

First, a note about Jesus references: if it makes you uncomfortable, you can speak to the organizers about ways they could make their events more respectful to non-Christians. Of course it’s important to keep your remarks kind-spirited and constructive, but if the spirit of these events is really multi-faith, they should be happy to get feedback on how to make everyone feel more welcome.

I spoke to Emily Soloff, Associate Director for Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the American Jewish Committee, about the politics of praying with people whose faith background is different from your own. She introduced to me the concept of “being present in prayer but not praying.” Essentially, you can be literally present and supportive in someone else’s prayer, without participating. If someone’s prayer is making you uncomfortable you can always mentally separate yourself from what’s going on in the room. Just because they’re praying, doesn’t mean you must participate. You always have the option of simply sitting or standing respectfully.

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