January 15, 2019

Prayer Circles on the Playground

Laying on of hands

If you don't know what a "prayer circle" is, don't worry. You are in good company. I had never heard the term before moving to Mississippi. That does not necessarily mean they never happened in the region where I grew up, but they either went by a different name or I just never heard about them. But really, if you have not encountered this term before, consider yourself lucky. I wish I still didn't know what it was.

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 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, non-fundamentalist Protestants, or pretty much anything other than evangelical fundamentalist Christians.

The children start calling you names, 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. Now you know.

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 far worse than my feeble attempt to describe it here can capture.

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.

prayer circle

The first couple times I heard about this, I was 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 one of the local public schools. That was when he pulled out a scrapbook he had kept since moving to Mississippi from the Northeast. 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. That is to say, it was a collection of Christian hate his daughter had brought home from school. I wanted to cry.

And speaking of crying, that is exactly how almost all of the children subjected to this initially respond. They burst into tears on the playground and again when they get home and recount their ordeal to their family. Remember, these are young children we are talking about and not adults. For them, this can be a terrifying experience. If we are going to consider it abusive for Christian parents to threaten their children with hell, we should probably consider this abusive.

How Do The Parents Cope?

Honestly, I have no idea. I don't think I could handle it. From what I have observed, and this is admittedly a small sample of approximately 8 parents, the initial response is 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, and teachers can't be everywhere. School personnel can't control what other children say, and this is part of the culture here in the South.

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 little idea what I would do as a parent in this situation. All I can say is that I hate that they have to do this. Their children should not be subjected to religiously-motivated bullying simply because they do not share the religion of the majority.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised in 2013 and again in 2019 to remove broken links and correct typos.