It was obvious the 2020 National Day of Prayer was different a few hours before the representatives of six faiths offered prayers in an eerily empty White House Rose Garden on Thursday.
Each arrived alone, took a rapid COVID-19 test and wore masks, said Debbie Marriott Harrison, who prayed on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other men and women represented evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Hindus.
Each sat separated from the others in an awkward-looking formation of folding chairs. The chairs were spread apart across the lawn of the Rose Garden, which normally is packed shoulder-to-shoulder for the event. Even after Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, stood together and prayed at the podium, they sat in chairs separated for social distancing.
The pandemic also dominated the comments and prayers.
“In recent weeks and days, our country has endured a grave hardship,” President Donald Trump said during the ceremony.
“I ask all Americans to join their voices and their hearts in spiritual union as we ask our Lord in heaven for strength and solace, for courage and comfort, for hope and healing, for recovery and for renewal,” he said.
Harrison, a member of the church’s Washington, D.C., public affairs advisory committee, accepted a request from Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to pray at the event.
She called it a once-in-a-lifetime event.
“With the pandemic going on, I felt that it was a really special prayer day. I think many more people were paying attention today because we are all turning our hearts and our voices towards the Lord to help deliver us from all of this. It doesn’t matter what faith you are. I feel very honored, very humbled, that I was asked to do it,” said Harrison, who sits on the board of directors of Marriott International.
She said she was especially impressed by Brittany Akinsola, a nurse and pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina, who the president introduced for working 13-hour days as a volunteer comforting COVID-19 patients at the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in New York City’s Central Park.
The president also highlighted Mario Salerno, a landlord who waived rent for his 200 tenants.
“Every morning when I wake up, at 3:30 in the morning, get ready, put my feet, I pray and I ask the good Lord, ‘Please, conquer this vicious virus,’” Salerno said.
“We will vanquish the virus,” Trump said.
Then the faith leaders prayed for divine aid.
“Merciful Savior, heal and comfort the sick, so that with health restored, they may give you praise,” said Sister Anida Martinez, a Catholic nun. “Divine physician, accompany our caregivers so that serving you with patience, they may heal wisely.”
Pujari Harish Brahmbhatt spoke the Shanti, the Hindu prayer for peace.
Rabbi Ariel Sadwin said the pandemic has altered the Jewish relationship with God. Jews have not been in their synagogues for nearly two months.
“These sacred places where we go to seek you and to derive inspiration three times a day, every day, are empty, dark and shuttered. Instead, all we have had is the sanctuary of our own homes and the limited allowable interactions,” prayed the executive director of Agudath Israel, which represents Jewish congregations in three states and Washington, D.C.
It was a note sounded by Trump, also, in his presidential proclamation about the day of prayer.
“During the past weeks and months, our heads have bowed at places outside of our typical houses of worship, whispering in silent solitude for God to renew our spirit and carry us through unforeseen and seemingly unbearable hardships,” the proclamation said. “Even though we have been unable to gather together in fellowship with our church families, we are still connected through prayer and the calming reassurance that God will lead us through life’s many valleys.”
The rabbi added, “Master of the world, you are the Rofei chol basar, the healer of all flesh. We implore you to eradicate this awful plague from your earth, heal those who suffer, comfort those who mourn, sustain those who have lost livelihood.”
Bishop Dwight Green of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ said its membership has prayed for 12 weeks for deliverance from the coronavirus pandemic. Pastor Paula White, Trump’s faith adviser and another evangelical, referred to Psalm 40:17.
“‘You are my help and my deliverer,’” she recited, adding, “Do not delay, oh God. I declare no more delays to the deliverance of COVID-19. No more delays to healing and a vaccination. No more delays to restoration of this great nation, the United States of America.”
U.S. Army Islamic Chaplain Lt. Col. Ibraheem Raheem prayed, as did First Lady Melania Trump, for the pandemic’s victims and their families, as well as those fighting for their lives now.
“I pray for the many without jobs, food and shelter,” Raheem added. “I ask that you would give all of our nation’s leaders the wisdom and courage to lead us through this pandemic.”
Harrison said she enjoyed meeting Raheem and will arrange an open house tour of the Washington D.C. Temple for some of those she met. The landmark Latter-day Saint building is under renovation.
In her prayer, Harrison expressed gratitude for the right to exercise religious beliefs.
“We are united in prayer today to ask a special blessing of deliverance, deliverance from this pandemic that has covered the earth in a devastating sickness,” she prayed. “We ask that our doctors, nurses and caregivers can be blessed with special protection in recognition of their sacrifices and hard work. Please bless our scientists and doctors to develop effective treatments for those who are sick and who may become sick.”
She also asked Heavenly Father to bless the nation’s leaders with wisdom and judgment and for comfort for those who have lost loved ones.
“We call down the powers of heaven to help us, unite us and deliver us from these troubled times,” she added.“We call down the powers of heaven to help us, unite us and deliver us from these troubled times.” — Debbie Marriott Harrison
Trump thanked the religions represented for feeding families, providing medical supplies to hospitals and providing spiritual strength and encouragement to their communities.
He also prayed.
“So, once more, we call upon our Creator to guide us through these very complex steps, protect our people, rebuild our communities and restore our beloved nation to even greater heights,” he said. “We will never forget, however, those that have been lost, those incredible souls, and the families of those souls that are going through so much. We will never forget you. We will be there for you. May God continue to strengthen our hearts and sustain our souls. May God continue to shed his divine grace upon this land, and may God bless the United States of America.”