Politics & Government

‘I just let him lead’: Behind the prayers Kansas lawmakers hear daily

Lawmakers listen to a prayer at the start of a daily session in the Kansas House.
Lawmakers listen to a prayer at the start of a daily session in the Kansas House.

They are sometimes the only quiet moment of the day in the Statehouse.

The prayers said in the Kansas House and Senate each day, like clockwork, often go unnoticed. Sandwiched between an attendance roll call and the Pledge of Allegiance, they can quickly slip the mind as lawmakers get to work.

But not always.

On Wednesday – the 100th day of the session – the House prayer drew giggles.

“I pray for these members who are ‘All in the Family,’ attempting to ‘Get Smart’ and accomplish ‘Mission Impossible.’ We have gone way past the 90 days and being ‘Saved by the Bell.’ It may be time to call in the ‘A-Team’ as many are getting tired and feel like the ‘Walking Dead.’”

It went on, but you get the idea.

The prayers, a staple of the legislative day, veer between specific and vague. Sometimes they mention issues before the Legislature, but often they sound broader notes.

They are mostly Christian and often begin with Scripture.

“As a Christian, yes, it is a comfort,” Sen. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, said.

The Rev. Doyle Pryor of First Southern Baptist Church in Topeka delivered the prayer in the House on May 18. He invoked the Book of Jeremiah, which urges the reader to pray to “seek the welfare of the city where I have placed you.”

Lawmakers face the same task, his prayer contended.

His prayer asked that lawmakers’ choices lead to life and peace instead of death and division. The “stakes are too high, our children too precious, our future too bright and the needs too many for them to listen to anyone but you during this time,” he prayed.

He said in an interview he wants lawmakers to know they’re prayed for and they’re supported.

“But I also want, hopefully, by prayer, to pray for God’s will to be done through them. We believe the best legislation happens from the throne of heaven, and nobody’s a better king than he is,” Pryor said.

The Rev. Cecil Washington has been praying for the Senate for the past two years. As its chaplain, he comes into the chamber a few minutes early most days.

When he steps to the lectern, he delivers a prayer that he has thought about and crafted ahead of time.

He begins his process, he said, by asking what the Lord would have him say.

“When I sit down to start, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have any preconceived ideas as to what I’m going to say. I just let him lead,” Washington said.

His prayer for the 100th day of the session asked God to help senators choose truthfulness over deception, empathy more than sympathy and a desire to be understanding rather than simply react.

The prayer included one specific reference to current events: thanking God that Joyce Dugan, the 2-year-old daughter of Mark Dugan, a prominent lobbyist at the Statehouse, had awoken from a coma she went into after falling and hitting her head.

On occasion, prayers can provoke controversy. A 1996 prayer by Pastor Joe Wright, then of Central Christian Church in Wichita, sparked a firestorm. “We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare,” he said during the prayer. And later: “We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle.”

In 2009, the Rev. Brian Schieber, then of Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Topeka, decried abortion in a prayer on the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized the right to an abortion. At the time, Schieber told the Associated Press that the Gospel should “rattle us” out of complacency.

Washington said God calls him to bring Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives all closer to God. He didn’t rule out addressing the issues lawmakers are working on but seemed to indicate it isn’t his first focus.

“Only if the Lord leads me in that direction,” he said, before adding, “but I don’t study the issues.”

Beyond the prayers, the chaplains and clergy that pass through the Legislature sometimes take time to privately counsel lawmakers. Dave DePue, a pastor for the Capitol Commission – a national organization that aims to put a pastor in capitols around the country – frequently interacts with lawmakers.

He can often be seen standing outside the House or Senate chambers, talking to lawmakers and lobbyists, and has counseled Gov. Sam Brownback.

“I just tell them to behave,” DePue said. “Us folks here, we’re peacekeepers, and our obligation is to keep the peace. That lasts a lot longer than the provision they’re working on.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman