Lodi City Council prayer tradition causes stir
August 10, 2009
Medianews Wire Service — Mercury News
While lining the sidewalk, 13-year-old Eddie Lopez and about 10 other kids chanted “Jesus said ‘Amen,'” as others marched up and down the sidewalk with signs saying “Keep them separate” and “Not all Lodians ‘R’ Christian.” The debate about the Lodi City Council’s prayer policy continued Wednesday night with about 400 people gathering for a prayer meeting near Carnegie Forum, and a couple dozen joining together for a counter rally.
While holding a sign quoting Colossians 3:17, Lodi resident Angela Lopez said she is tired of freedom being taken away from Christians.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for the Christians. … It’s only because we support God that our country is as blessed as it is,” Lopez said.
Her son, Eddie, also held a sign and a Bible.
“I came just to support Jesus,” Eddie Lopez said. “Just for him to know I was here to support him.”
As the Lopez’s gathered to sing prayer hymns, Lodi resident Steve Weiner said he wanted to make sure the council knew there were two sides to this issue.
“We have Muslims, Sikhs, atheists and people of various faiths, and they can feel excluded and intimidated at council meetings if there is a prayer to one God, Jesus,” Weiner said.
The conflict began in May when the Lodi City Council went through with its traditional public prayer before a meeting. During that meeting, someone took exception to religion in a government setting. That person complained
to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the complaint soon got back to the city council. The Madison, Wis.-based goup sent the council in May threatening to sue if the council did not enforce its own policy limiting prayers to “non-sectarian and non-denominational.” The letter specifically mentioned 39 references to Jesus in 55 prayers the group watched online.
Looking to avoid a lawsuit, the council asked all preachers to avoid praying in the name of Jesus.
The council decided it wanted to have a meeting to receive public comment and discuss the policy.
The meeting was tentatively scheduled for Wednesday but was moved because the council needed to approve time-sensitive contracts.
Mayor Larry Hansen announced Wednesday that the policy will be discussed at a special meeting Sept. 30.
Of the 350 people who rallied, roughly 50 asked Lodi leaders to uphold their policy. They marched up and down Pine Street holding signs with phrases such as “Lodi is not a Christian town.”
In the meantime, the city clerk’s office has started to call religious leaders to remind them about the policy.
The rally spilled over into the Lodi City Council meeting, even though the council members were not discussing the policy.
At the beginning of the meeting, people crowded into Carnegie Forum to listen to the invocation by the Rev. Alan Kimber of First United Methodist Church. He held a moment of silence before giving thanks for our country’s freedom to express different beliefs.
At the end, he said “Amen,” which was followed by some members of the crowd yelling “in Jesus’ name.” During the Pledge of Allegiance, some members also shouted the words “one nation under God.”
The national group The Pray In Jesus Name Project sponsored the rally and had several religious leaders pray and give speeches to the group. People sang, chanted “Jesus,” waved American flags and prayed throughout the rally.
Virginia Alejo clapped her hands and smiled during a hymn. She came from Stockton because she objects to governments taking Jesus’ name out of prayers.
“This country was made because of our religion. … The public has to be more aware. We should not be ashamed to be Christians,” Alejo said.
Near the back of the crowd, Pastor Mike Abdollahzadeh of Lodi Avenue Baptist Church said this is one way the public can make its opinion heard.
“It’s sad that we’ve gotten to the point where you squabble over prayer. … Our nation would not be the same without faith, prayer and what God has done,” he said.
Lodi United, a local group, led the counter-protest. Resident David Diskin formed the group last week because he wanted people to know that some Lodians do not support prayers before the council meeting.
As a Buddhist, Suanne Minden said she attended to support removing prayer from the meetings and replacing it with a moment of silence. She lives in Lodi but is a Canadian citizen.
“We don’t have this type of issue in Canada,” Minden said. “We believe in not crossing religion and government.”
Describing herself as belonging to one of the few Jewish families in Lodi, 19-year-old Rachel Allen stopped by the rally because she knew that what she described as “conservative Lodi” would be in full force.
“I don’t go to council meetings to be preached to. … Why can’t they have a non-denominational prayer? Why is it so important that Jesus’ name has to be in it? We all believe in the same God,” Allen said.
But not everyone who attended the rallies grabbed signs and joined the group.
Kimber said he walked through the gathering on his way to give the invocation, but said he did not want to attend because his view on the issue was different. He said he believes the current policy of non-sectarian and non-denominational prayers is good, if it is adhered to.
He also said many of the clergy he talked with did not attend the rally because it was organized by a group outside of Lodi with an extreme view.
“I think the clergy have a deep sense of commitment to each other and the city,” Kimber said.
While standing between the two rallies, senior pastor Tim Stevenson of Horizon Community Church in Galt said he came to watch and listen.
“God’s pretty big,” he said. “I don’t think he needs us to defend his name.”
He wishes the energy spent by both groups at the rally could go toward bigger problems facing Lodi and the world, like the people standing in front of Salvation Army or the thousands of children who die daily from preventable diseases.
“There are too many things around the world that God told us to go out and do,” Stevenson said. “We got our priorities in the wrong place.”
“Lodi’s a pretty quiet place. Lodi is a conservative town. … To see an issue like this take hold is pretty surprising but good.” — Suanne Minden, Lodi
“Jesus would take a backseat, strike up a conversation, listen to their heart and give them truth along the way.” — Tim Stevenson, senior pastor at Horizon Community Church
“Our country was founded on the basis that it wouldn’t be pushed around and bullied by religion.” — Norm Lee, Lodi
“Many Americans wonder what’s going on with the economy and school shooting, but we are taking away God and prayer.” — Richard Tafoya, Stockton
“After Proposition 8, it sent home that it needs to be more separate.” — Jessica Chernak, Sacramento
“Both sides will fight hard for what they think is right. It’s not a one-night thing.” — Pastor Mike Abdollahzadeh, Lodi Avenue Baptist Church.