TOPEKA — House and Senate members frequently begin work on behalf of Kansans standing side-by-side with heads bowed in prayer.
In these reflective moments at the Capitol, religious leaders and sometimes legislators urge their 165 brethren to embody the Good Word. They encourage representatives and senators to go about their political objectives as instruments of peace. The elected are directed time and again to sow love rather than hatred, to pardon those who injure others and to bring hope to despair.
A review of the 2021 Legislature’s collection of opening prayers revealed how the Rev. Cecil Washington urged the Senate and the Rev. Eunice Brubaker offered the House seasoned spiritual advice for politicians at risk of losing sight of God’s message as they battled ideological foes real or imagined.
Washington touched on the responsibility of wielding power on behalf of 2.9 million constituents.
“You hold us to the codes necessary to regulate our behavior, the regulations needed for successful living. But You balance the restraining discipline of Your laws with the liberating power of Your love,” he said. “For in Proverbs 13:24, You show that the compassion of love and the restraint of discipline are both needed. So, help us to be like You. For law or policy without love is just empty regulation, while love or empathy without law is just weak flexibility.”
Across the rotunda, Brubaker warned the flock it was dangerous to be yoked to self-interests during a legislative session made extraordinary by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Please help our leaders to believe in and live into Your gracious plan for this day,” she said. “Remind them to look not into their own interests, but to the good for this state and its people. Reveal to all of us that which is true, honorable, just and pure and may everything we say and do be guided by this.”
‘We are not naive’
It’s clear statehouse politicians appreciate they’re part of a rough-and-tumble environment. Look no further than words of Senate President Ty Masterson, a southcentral Kansas Republican who directed colleagues to be collegial and admonished them to not keep score as if politics was a game.
“Heavenly Father, remind us we have come together here, in this chamber, to serve the people of Kansas who elected us,” Masterson said. “Cause us not to think more of ourselves than we ought. Cause us to think before we speak. Before our lips start moving, cause us to pause and think about our words. Remind us to never think our words will be overlooked and easily erased. Cause us to realize the distinction between arguing and quarreling. At the end of the day, cause us to reflect not on what we gained or lost personally, but on what we accomplished for the people of Kansas in this legislative body and in this building.”
Jeff Barclay, lead pastor Christ Community Church in Lawrence, also prescribed collegiality as a tonic for conflict at the epicenter of Kansas political power.
He took an ecumenical approach to emphasizing the peril of politicians mistaking justice for one as justice for all.
“When compromises are made, may they come by wisdom. When there is consensus, may there be celebration,” Barclay prayed. “No one in this room wants to make a decision that causes detriment to another person. But, we are not naïve. There is disagreement on how to define what is good and bad policy.
“The questions before this Senate are how to be fair for all whom this chamber legislates. These are precarious times for truth, justice, equity and liberty. This is because contradictory statements cannot both be true, justice for one cannot create inequity for another, and when a person’s liberty restricts another’s, neither is truly free,” he said.
A world on fire
At the opening bell of the annual session Jan. 11, Washington pleaded for solutions to conflict permeating U.S. society. His audience’s frame of reference was the lethal assault on the U.S. Capitol, the weighty health, economic and political challenges of COVID-19, all those street protests about police violence against Blacks and any of a 1,000 other national challenges.
Washington told senators the nation, in a sense, was on fire.
“Heavenly Father, we’re in a season where division and conflict are permeating our society. Here at home and across this nation, the discord is running wild,” Washington said in prayer. “Lord, You said in Luke 11: 17-18, that people divided in civil conflict, cannot survive. So Lord, we need Your peace; not a bogus pseudo peace, but the real peace that only You can provide, and only You can sustain.”
Brubaker, in the House, recommended legislators — dozens of them were new to their jobs — turn to the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as they worked.
“As we begin this new session, albeit in unusual circumstances and times, I challenge each one to use the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as a daily goal. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”
COVID-19, which has snuffed out the lives of nearly 5,000 Kansans, couldn’t be ignored in the ’21 session. For much of the time since January, the House maintained social distancing in the chamber. The Senate was less concerned about all those public health advisories. The wearing of masks, generally, became a partisan issue. Democrats wore face coverings, but many Republicans did not.
In the House chamber, Brubaker included in a February prayer a sense of physical obstacles posed by COVID-19 to the process of governing.
“In these unprecedented, discouraging and disruptive times, I am sure it has been especially frustrating for our leaders to have to work on such serious issues without being able to sit across from each other and have face-to-face conversations,” she said. “To have to do most work virtually can be exasperating and perhaps somewhat unsatisfying. Please continue to give our leaders the strength, determination and encouragement to work within the unusual circumstances and be able to resolve the differences to come to decisions.”
Democratic Rep. Henry Helgerson, of Wichita, shaped an Ash Wednesday prayer to share his belief in new life following death.
“This year we have all been facing even more death in our families, friends and constituents,” the representative said. “Every day, death stalks the halls of this building. But there is also rebirth. A new life for us all. We must embrace that future and become better individuals with more love and more forgiveness.”
The fragility of life also was on display as Washington examined through prayer the February death of Dodge City Sen. Bud Estes.
“We are gathering again today to be used by You in the service of Your people. But in the process Lord, we find that You’ve pulled one from our midst,” Washington said. When the roll is called in this place, our brother, Bud Estes, won’t be answering. Because You have called that faithful servant home to be with You.”
Internet and mercy
Washington ventured outside the box during an invocation to denounce influence of the internet on hearts and minds of people. He examined the world wide web in terms of dwindling American greatness.
“It has been said Lord, that our nation will be defeated without a shot being fired; that our defeat will come from us allowing, even inviting, the enemy to gradually and increasingly come through our doors. Today, and on the second Tuesday of every February, 130 plus countries are recognizing “Safer Internet Day.” Lord, we are being bombarded by a spirit that is denying You. The web, the world wide web, has pushed open our doors. And all kinds of unrighteousness has been slowly creeping in. And like the web of a spider holds its victims until they’re consumed, the world wide web has its hold on Your people.”
Pastor LaRon Thompson, of Paseo Baptist Church, took the microphone in the Senate to deliver a simple message: Love mercy.
“Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent God, on this 24th day of March in the year of 2021, we pause with grateful hearts to say Thank You!” Thompson said. “Father, in this moment we beseech Your presence. Your presence to abide in the hearts of Your public servants. Your presence to build the boldness we need in our service to Your children. Your presence to convict us in challenging moments. Your presence to discern the direction You desire for us to go. Finally, may we, public servants elected for the people by the people, be reminded of Your unwavering requirement found in Micah 6:8. May we live justly, love mercy and walk humbly before almighty God.”
As the legislative session was grinding on in March, Brubaker in the House and Washington in the Senate made fresh appeals for lawmakers to reach out to the goodness in their rivals.
“Shed Your light in the darkness of alienation and division,” Brubaker said. “Remind us that You have created us in Your image and this is what we should see reflected in the lives of one another. As our leaders work together in this place, may they be cognizant of their stewardship of Your gifts.”
And the closer, Washington, recalled words of a grandmother while beseeching senators to resist the temptation to hurl insults in the Capitol.
“In Proverbs 18:21, You tell us that the words we speak have the power of life and death. So, slow us down that we not be so quick as to speak out of our emotions. In Proverbs 29:20, You say that one who speaks in haste is more hopeless than a fool. And You tell us in James 1:19 to be slow to speak, but quick to listen. For when we’re listening, You can teach us something. And Lord, that reminds me of the wisdom of my grandmother. She told me that as long as I kept my mouth shut, I could avoid displaying my ignorance.”