Seeking divine guidance at the Capitol
Chaplain of the House: A Ministry of Prayer and Presence in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Dennis J. Johnson. Minneapolis: Hennepin House. 2011. 121 pages, softbound. $12.95. 612/337-0003 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On July Fourth, between picnics and fireworks, you might take a moment to ponder one of American democracy’s seeming contradictions: We separate church and state, yet daily legislative sessions open with prayer.
Dennis J. Johnson’s newest book, Chaplain of the House: A Ministry of Prayer and Presence in the Minnesota House of Representatives, a handbook to Minnesota’s version of this tradition, provides a service to both church and state. He quotes the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. “To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making laws is … simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among people of this country.” [Marsh v. Chambers, 1983.]
Common prayer, on behalf of a community of petitioners, requires attention to fairness and inclusivity.
After a career as Lutheran pastor and college administrator, including an interim presidency of Gustavus Adolphus College (2002-2003), Johnson served as Chaplain of the Minnesota legislature during its 2009 and 2010 sessions. One-third of his book consists of prayers and meditations that he offered in those two years. In addition, he generously includes prayers of two dozen guest chaplains representing several denominations.
Common prayer, on behalf of a community of petitioners, requires attention to fairness and inclusivity. Johnson prays for “our legislative colleagues, those who support us and those who serve us by doing battle with us.” On St. Patrick’s Day, he offers a prayer of early Celtic spiritualist Brigid of Gael. On Blessing Day in May, Johnson reads a passage from Old Testament scripture, joined by Rep. Jeremy Kalin speaking the same text in the original Hebrew.
Like many devotional volumes, Johnson’s book is small and portable, but it is rich with insight and information about what he calls his “parish.” An appendix lists all Minnesota House chaplains since the territorial days of 1849. This chaplaincy is not about religious conversion nor political persuasion. Johnson made himself visible and available to those wanting to discuss personal journeys and emotions, pain, and sometimes grief.
“These are very human persons,” Johnson writes. “I now find myself defending legislators whenever I hear the comment, ‘They just don’t care.’ They care — deeply.” He also points out, “Many of the prayers in this book lift up the needs of people caught in poverty.” Profits from the sale of the book will be donated to Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness, a coalition of 14 Minneapolis congregations.
Kathryn Christenson is a freelance writer living in St. Peter, Minnesota.