This post was updated in April of 2013. Specifically, I removed the original introductory paragraph because it contained several links to a blog that no longer exists.
What is a Prayer Circle?
Imagine yourself back in the third grade. It is recess, and you are with your classmates on the playground. There is a teacher in the vicinity, but the level of adult supervision is fairly minimal. Suddenly, a group of 6 or more children approach you and say something along the lines of, "Have you been saved?" You are not sure what to make of the question, so other questions about your religious beliefs and experiences follow. Without understanding the consequences, you tell them that you and your family are atheists, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, or non-fundamentalist Protestants, etc.
The children start calling you names and hurling insults at you. If you happen to be Jewish, you will hear things from these children that would make neo-Nazi's proud. You are a sinner. You are going to burn in a lake of fire. You will rot in hell. They form a circle around you, holding hands to make sure you can't easily escape. They tell you that the only way you can save yourself is to accept Jee-zuhs. They begin praying around you loudly to "save your soul."
The teacher, if he/she even notices what is happening shrugs it off. Maybe he or she cannot see that you are crying by now. It does not look like the children are touching you, so there seems little cause to disrupt the activity. Maybe the teacher even approves of what the children are doing. After all, he or she may have been raised in the same culture of intolerance that spawned these children.
This, dear reader, is a prayer circle.
This Doesn't Really Happen, Does It?
I wish I could tell you that I am just making this up. I really do. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens far more often and is often worse than my feeble attempt to describe it here.
Prayer circles like this are sufficiently common on public school playgrounds here in Mississippi that nearly everyone I know with children who has not raised them to be evangelical fundamentalist Christians has had it happen to their children. In some cases, especially if the family is not Christian at all, it happens many times throughout elementary school. Many victims are Jewish; some are Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, or even non-fundamentalist Protestants.
The first couple times I heard about this, I was absolutely stunned. I vividly remember my mouth hanging open as I kept repeating, "No way" to a Jewish colleague who was describing what his daughter had to endure at her public school. That was when he pulled out a scrapbook he had kept since moving to Mississippi from the Northeast. But this was no ordinary scrapbook. It was a collection of fundamentalist Christian propaganda and anti-Semitic material his daughter had been given by her peers at her public school. I wanted to cry.
How Do The Parents Cope?
From what I have observed, and this is admittedly a small sample of approximately 8 parents, the initial response is often what you would expect: outrage. The parents typically meet with the school officials to express their concern, push for increased supervision, etc. But time and time again, they run into the same wall. The evangelical fundamentalist Christians are the overwhelming majority here, teachers can't be everywhere, we can't control what other children say, this is part of the culture here in the South, etc.
Many parents seem to tire of banging their head against this wall and come to believe that their primary role should be one of providing emotional support for their children. As parents realize that this really is part of the culture here, they tend to set efforts to change it aside in favor of trying to help their children deal with it. I certainly don't condemn them for this. I have no idea what I would do as a parent in this situation, and it would be absurd for me to pass judgment.