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Calling on higher power at aldermanic meetings pleases some, ruffles others

CITY HALL – Most of the time, the Rev. John Watson Jr. is co-pastor of the Maple Temple Church of God in Christ in the Academy neighborhood.

But for exactly a minute on Nov. 22, he pastored a different flock. Under longstanding rules of the Board of Aldermen, he said the opening prayer at the board’s Friday morning regular meeting.

Watson is one of a wide variety of faiths and groups represented among clergy who say prayers at the meetings, in the hope of getting help from above.

A transgender minister has said the prayer, as have an imam, rabbis, nuns, priests, chaplains, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and others from a wide variety of denominations.   

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed suggests before the start of the prayer that anyone who wishes can join in, his legislative aide Mary Ries wrote in an email. But no one is forced to participate, she said. 

“We try to have a variety of pastors say the ‘prayer,’” Ries wrote. “But just because we call it prayer, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a prayer. We’ve had people read poems, say traditional prayers or share inspirational sayings and quotes for the ‘prayer.'” 

At times, the  person who says the prayer is a constituent of an alderman or is involved with a bill the board is considering, Ries said. On a gun violence awareness day, a member of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America read a poem instead of a prayer.

Ries noted that the Board of Aldermen follows the U.S. Congressional Rules, which have an opening prayer.  

Ries said she didn’t know of anyone who had objections to the practice. Reed himself said he thought the practice was good and set the tone for Board of Aldermen meetings. But among four aldermen chosen at random, two were solidly for it and two had concerns.

Watson used examples from his own life to say why he thought prayers at the start of a board meeting were a good idea. 

“I believe that consulting God about my issues and things that I have to make decisions about is very important, and I feel the same way down here,” Watson said. “They’re making decisions about my life and about other peoples’ lives, and I think there’s a need for prayer to be done down here also, where I believe that God could inspire them to make decisions that are better for the people.”

Watson, a retired firefighter, said he had been in the ministry for 30 years. In the last 25 years, he’s been co-pastor of Maple Temple Church of God in Christ with his father, the Rev. John Watson Sr. Over the last 10 or 15 meetings, the younger Watson has said the prayer at Board of Aldermen meetings hundreds of times.

“People that don’t want to pray, that is their choice,” Watson said, shortly before the Nov. 22 Board of Aldermen meeting started. “But if I’m given an opportunity, I’ll pray to the God that I know. I’m 60 years old now, and so praying and consulting God has been a vital part of my life.”

That’s what Watson did in his prayer on Nov. 22.

“Well, thanks be unto God, who always causes us to triumph in Christ,” Watson said in his opening, quoting 2 Corinthians 2:14.

“Gracious God, heavenly Father, in this season of Thanksgiving, we pause and reflect on all the times we have faced as a community and a city,” Watson said. “As we continue to triumph over injustice, inequality, division and intolerance, so that all residents can experience a brighter future.”

Everybody clapped, Reed took up his gavel and the business part of the meeting began.

Afterward, aldermen offered different views of the practice of prayers before their meetings. 

“I think starting our meeting with prayer is a good thing,” said 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd. “In our school, I remember, we said the Pledge of Allegiance, and we said prayers in schools; and then they took it out, and look at where our society has moved to.”

Boyd said he didn’t know how a prayer at a meeting would violate anybody’s freedom.

“The prayers are fairly generic. When you say ‘God,’ it’s who you see as God.” 

Twenty-third Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro had similar thoughts.

“I think as a society we’re lacking in prayer,” Vaccaro said. As for those who don’t want to hear prayers, “They should step out of the room,” he said. 

“It’s just gotten to the point where the few are starting to dictate to the many,” Vaccaro said. “I pray every night. I’m for prayer.”

But Sixth Ward Alderman Christine Ingrassia disagreed.

“Generally speaking, I’m opposed to prayer in government buildings and have often considered amending the rules to, at the very least, require reflections to honor the myriad of world religions represented in our city, as well as those who do not have a faith,” Ingrassia wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, due to the many issues that pop up during the legislative session, it’s always been placed on the back burner.”

And 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan said that if there were prayers, the process should be more inclusive.

“If they are going to do it at all, they should make sure that any prayers are nondenominational and inclusive of all the residents of the city,” Narayan said.

If there is a change in rules concerning prayers, it would have to come at the caucus held every two years, after elections, he said. It might be hard to change longstanding prayers and traditions, “But it’s certainly something that people are willing to look at,” Narayan said.

“It’s a complex situation,” Narayan said. “There are people that feel it’s appropriate. There are people who feel it’s inappropriate. It’s difficult to make all the people happy.”

Reed invited clergy interested in saying a prayer to call 314-622-4114. They will be vetted before being scheduled, he said.


Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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