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Praying for our cities

What do you say to people you meet? How about, “I’m praying for Detroit.” I’ve heard that statement.  It’s hard not to like such a slogan for my city of Detroit or for any of our cities.  But, how about saying, “Marhaban”? Do you know that greeting? What do you say to people you encounter? Anything?

By Dan Buttry

This series first appeared in the Our Values section of

Monday Meditation

What do we say to neighbors?

What do you say to people you meet? How about, “I’m praying for Detroit.” I’ve heard that statement.  It’s hard not to like such a slogan for my city of Detroit or for any of our cities.

But, how about saying, “Marhaban”? Do you know that greeting? What do you say to people you encounter? Anything?

These days there are lots of bumper stickers in my part of Michigan about praying for Detroit—and we do need a lot of prayer around here. But, part of me bristles because I feel the public image of God is taking a beating in Detroit. Bumper-sticker greetings can be cheap, and there has been too much cheap God talk in my town.  

Just think about the last few months in Detroit! An indicted mayor gave a press conference about his troubles, not in City Hall but in a church. A city councilwoman sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a public meeting that was blatantly partisan, dragging the Almighty into yet another battle where holiness was hardly evident. There were other incidents like this. God was hauled out, again and again, like a fistful of mud to throw at opponents.

I do support praying for our cities, but I remember my grandmother’s advice (maybe  your grandmother shared this, too): “Pray as if it all depended on God; act as if it all depended on you.”

So, how might that look? This week I’ll explain some simple steps toward putting more substance behind our prayers. I want to hear from you, too. What do you think of these ideas?

Here’s one idea: “Marhaban.” That’s what I say when I walk into the Al-Haramin grocery store. It’s our favorite neighborhood fruit and vegetable store, run by a Yemeni family.  The first time I said “Marhaban” a surprised smile erupted on the face of the man at the register.  He didn’t expect this white Anglo guy to great him in Arabic.  As I left I said “Shukran”—thank you.  

Near my home in Hamtramck, which is a small city inside Detroit, we have people from many ethnic groups and many mother tongues. You may not have our mix of Arabic, Bosnian, Bengali and Polish neighbors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you have neighbors who speak a different language. “Marhaban” may not be the right choice for you.  How can you greet someone in their native tongue?   Most of us never stop to talk with strangers we meet. We tend to take care of business—and that’s it.

Maybe a simple greeting won’t change others, although a kind word might change a grumpy person into one who can smile.

However, those humanizing interactions change me. Step by step, this discipline helps me see my neighbors for who they are. For me to say “Marhaban” brings up an appreciative, honoring spirit within me. I’m saying: Yes my neighbor is different, but I’m glad my neighbor is here. With that spirit, I can beat back the fear and cynicism—and expand a circle of grace and peace.

How about you? Tell me what happens when you move through your day? Who do you encounter?

What do you say? What do you wish you could say?


Tuesday Meditation:

What does integrity look like in you?

What does integrity look like in you?  We’re talking about praying for our cities.  Does prayer have anything to do with a person’s character?  How would our character be changed to have integrity with our prayer?

I shared yesterday about people in our local news who were examples of compromised integrity and duplicitous character yet had the audacity to preach to the public about prayer.  If they knew their Bibles (these were all purported Christians, like me—those of you of other faiths can share the similar teaching from your traditions), they would know God demands godly character as part of the transformation that takes place in prayer.  Isaiah 58 speaks of those who participate in oppression of workers—such action “will not make your voice heard on high.” 

But integrity is more than what is done in public.  Integrity begins in private.  A friend of mine describes character as what you do when nobody is watching.  What do you do when nobody is watching?  Is the face you present to the public consistent with your private personae?

Jesus tells us to pray in the closet.  He also warns us that what we say in secret will be shouted from the housetops.  Our city officials have put their prayers in public and kept their extortions secret—though now that’s all coming out, just as Jesus had warned.  What do you want to keep quiet?  What are you willing to have made public?

Quality of character and personal integrity begin within and then work out into our public lives.  Each of us needs to determine what that should look like amid our commitments and responsibilities. 

I have a friend who is a local politician.  She ran for office specifically to counter the deplorable character shown in much of the public behavior of our officials.  To live out the integrity she proclaimed she determined not to use any negative advertising or personal attacks against other candidates in her campaign.  She was the target of some vicious mud-slinging from one of her opponents.  But she chose to not respond in kind.  She had the integrity to live out her values of treating people with respect in one of the toughest arenas imaginable—politics.

What is the tough arena for you to exhibit integrity?  If you want to pray for your city, that’s the point you where need to work at living out godly character.  The answer to your prayer for the city will be seen with how you let God shape your action in that arena.  And the integrity seen will begin with the shaping of your integrity when you aren’t seen.  So it’s back to the prayer closet!  Pray for the city—Yes!  But also pray about how you can live privately and publicly with integrity.

How about you?  Who has demonstrated character and integrity in how they live in your city?  What does that character and integrity look like?


Wednesday Meditation: 

What do you see around you?

What do you notice as you walk around the streets of your city?  Do you see what is beautiful?  Do you see the gleaming new buildings or grand historic structures?  Do you see people in all their magnificent diversity?  Or do you see trash, graffiti, litter?  Do you see what is ugly?

I was in Kinshasa, Congo, and everywhere I looked I saw small plastic bags.  They were on the trees like translucent leaves.  They clogged all the drainage ditches.  These bags were the main source of clean water—you’d buy from the local seller, rip off a corner to get the drink, then toss the empty bag on the ground.  I commented to my Congolese friends about the bags, and nobody knew what I was talking about.  They didn’t see the trash all around them.

Do you see the trash around you?  Do you step over the litter, walk by the crushed fast food cup, ignore the torn candy wrapper?   Or do you see?  What do you do about what you see?

In seeking to liberate India from British colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi challenged Indians to take responsibility for their own cleanliness.  There was a lot of dirtiness around India, and Gandhi said that was the responsibility of Indians themselves.  For him cleanliness was a step for inner liberation, taking control of one’s own living condition at least to that degree.

What do we say about our home, our city, if we litter?  What do we say about the value of our community if we pass by litter with unseeing eyes?

Prayer often involves confession.  We acknowledge before God what is morally fouled or dirty in our lives.  Then when we hear of God’s forgiveness we feel cleansed.  Many religions have rituals of washing, symbolizing our need to be clean as we come before God.

How would confession and cleansing look as we pray for our city?  If we walk as we pray, how does cleansing take place?

Maybe I should keep my trash until I can dispose of it properly.  Maybe I should clean up the litter in front of my home and in front of my place of work—not grumbling at the filthy pigs who threw that cigarette butt on the sidewalk, but as a prayerful spiritual discipline. 

Maybe I could even take a small trash bag with me as I walk the city to leave the place more beautiful that I found it.  When I hike in the forest, I live out the backpacker’s commitment to leave a place as nice or nicer than I found it.  You pack out your trash, and maybe other people’s trash too.  Why can’t we apply that ethic to our city streets?

What other ways might prayer and confession “hit the streets”?  How can God’s cleansing in you cleanse our city?


Thursday Meditation: 

What do our words say?

What words do you use about yourself?  What words do you use about other people?  Especially, what words do you use about people who disrupt your life in some way?

My wife once had a co-worker who was appalled at the words coming out of her 3-year old’s mouth.  “How can that #*%*@# kid use such #*%*@# language?  Who does he #*%*@# think he is?”  She was deaf to her own voice and to the words coming from her own mouth.  Her child wasn’t deaf, but was quick to absorb the words and the self-images encoded in those words.

What words do you hear around you as people pass you by?  What do you hear around the table at home, at work or in a restaurant?  What do you hear in the music about you?  What self-images are encoded in those words?

A few years ago with great fanfare the “N-word” was buried by some of our leaders in Detroit.  Just yesterday I heard it alive and well on my street.  It’s even a proud self-descriptor.  That’s me and my friends, to those who use it.  It’s not a racist epithet—we’re all too careful about that.  Now it’s a cultural phrase that is embraced.  What is the cultural damage done by glorifying such a vocabulary?  What scars of low self-esteem are expressed in the words.

I’m not questioning only black hip-hop culture.  What about “wife-beater” T-shirts, a fashion descriptor that trivializes domestic violence?  Can I wear such a shirt anymore?  I could give far worse examples of how violence and the dehumanization that allows violence has become a common part of contemporary vocabulary, from the street to government and from music radio to even public radio (not often, but I heard something that jolted me).  Can we hear what comes out of our own mouths?

The Bible says in James 3 that the tongue is a fire:  “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”  From the same mouth come prayers for the city and curses for the city’s citizens.

How do we douse the arson of our own tongues?  In my city of Detroit we had a problem with arson on the night before Halloween.  They called it “Devils’ night,” and hundreds of mostly abandoned homes were torched.  So “Angels’ night” was initiated in which hundreds of volunteers patrolled the city streets through the night.  The number of arsons dropped dramatically.

What might an “Angels’ night” for the tongue be like?  Are you willing to volunteer?  When will you begin?

Tomorrow I’ll respond to your thoughts on this week’s reflections.  How can you make praying for the city something that impacts our own way of living in the city with our neighbors?


Friday Meditation: 

What future do we dream about?

What comes to your mind when you pray for the future?  Where would you like us all to end up?

Back in the 1960’s the band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang about getting “back to the garden.”  There was a stream of the hippie movement that headed to rural areas and formed communes, many of which failed to achieve the ideal of the initial dreams.

The Abrahamic faiths trace human beginnings to a garden, the Garden of Eden.  Life was pure, good and righteous there before it was marred by evil.  Do we want to get back to the garden?

Christian views of the future in the New Testament point to an urban image:  The New Jerusalem.  We don’t end up in the garden, but rather in the city.  Anyone going to Jerusalem today knows how far the present reality is from the future dream with division and armed forces evident everywhere.  My city of Detroit is no closer with so many urban problems that we have become the poster child for what is wrong in American cities.

Do you want to get as far as you can from the city?  Do you want a garden or a city in your future?

Perhaps both.  My wife Sharon and I are urban gardeners.  We are part of one of the many community gardens in our city.  In our garden we each have our own plot (Sharon and I have two 4’ by 4’ plots), then we share some big plots.  Our tomatoes, lettuces and squash are shared.  We’ve also grown produce to share with the local food bank across the street from our garden.  Sharon has brought some of the local children to the garden to tend the plants and learn how we get our food.

How do you bring the “garden” and the “city” together?  What actions do you take, small or large, to bring a healing future into the present?

It’s been a wonderful week for me to share the “Our Values” columns with you—I’ve heard from many readers besides those who leave comments.  I’d like to add to P.S.s to these articles.

On Monday I spoke about greeting our local grocers in Arabic.  I stopped in and was asked where I learned Arabic.  That opened up a wonderful conversation about my global peacemaking work, especially the trips to Lebanon where I’ve worked in Christian/Muslim peace projects.  We talked about many things besides fruits and vegetables!  Who knows what respectful, humanizing encounters might open up?!

Yesterday I met a friend who was picking up trash in an empty lot next to the local corner store.  A gaggle of kids came over, and he invited them to help, which they eagerly did.  A simple act became a spontaneous neighborhood clean-up, and my friend got to know some of the neighborhood kids. 

How will you follow up to our ideas about living out our prayers?



Dan Buttry lives in Hamtramck, Michigan, a separate urban municipality surrounded by Detroit.  He is the Global Consultant for Peace and Justice with International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches.  ReadTheSpirit also features and published his books Interfaith Heroes and Interfaith Heroes 2.  He can be reached at