Prayers for Rain

I don’t know if it’s just the delirium that comes with dehydration, but this drought is getting weird.

Despite a bit of rain in the past week, the news is increasingly dire: Massive contractions in the agricultural economy are already underway. No state water deliveries projected for south of the delta. Only a few months of water left for 17 communities (and counting).

Not surprisingly, people inclined to pray are turning to prayer. And it seems that prayers and rain are at least correlated.

I first noticed this connection during the previous time it (sort of) rained, about a month ago.  My partner Miriam and I attended Jewish Sabbath services in Sacramento, and the message was focused on the drought. The sermon as well as the bulletin mentioned that the California Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued a call for prayer.

Praying for RainThe next morning’s paper included news of another prayer for rain that had been held a local mosque. It was a fascinating way for The Bee to frame a sidebar about a modest and uncertain rain forecast that ultimately delivered a few drops – just as another Muslim prayer service of about 100 people was underway at Folsom Lake (currently only 17% full and likely to cause serious water shortages in suburban Sacramento). Although the day’s totals were disappointing, this was the only precipitation in 52 days without measurable rain in Sacramento including one day with a high temperature of nearly 80 degrees.

Now it’s easy to dismiss this rain as a coincidence, and in any case the sprinkle was hardly the end of the drought. But if we might believe in the power of prayer to impact the material world, I can’t think of a better prayer to believe than Salatul Istisqa.

This Islamic prayer for rain has a lot of history among followers of a religion that – while thoroughly global now – was born in one of the world’s harshest deserts. If there was one thing for which Mohammed and his peers utterly depended upon Allah, it was rain. And now, here we are, centuries later: wondering whether California faces a drought that will go beyond inconvenience and discomfort, or whether a little divine intervention might help us out.

Strange rains

Admittedly one bit of rain following some prayers is not going to convince many people.

However, our most recent rainfalls hint at something unusual. The first rain was highly-anticipated but disappointing – it seemed like yet another case of computer models overestimating because the stable and linear world from which they create their assumptions no longer exists. There do not appear to have been any major prayer events before or during that midweek rainfall (from what I can tell with a few web news searches). The main exception was a Native American rain dance in San Diego a few days earlier.

The second rain event was a strange storm that ran the length of the state from north to south, soaking the coastal ranges but barely touching the Sierra Nevada. In contrast to the normal pattern of false rain forecasts and storms from the west, this weather came out of nowhere and turned out to be the biggest rain we’ve had this season. There had been some chatter on the weather blogs that we might get a few showers, but I didn’t see anyone predicting that it would deliver much precipitation.

To heighten the sense that our fancy systems of forecasting had failed, the local paper here in Oakland featured a screaming headline asking: “Where’s Winter?” The accompanying photos of beach life were incongruous on that frigid and blustery morning.

It turns out that a day before Winter’s return close to 1,000 people gathered at the fairgrounds in Pleasanton (in a valley southeast of Oakland that seems headed into some especially serious water problems due to their heavy reliance on the State Water Project, which recently announced plans for zero deliveries). This was yet another Muslim prayer event, although the announcement acknowledged that, “When God withholds the rain it is a trial for everyone. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, men, women, children, beasts, birds, even the fish, as we see in the devastation the drought has wrought upon our salmon populations.”

And there is certainly some buzz among Muslims about the success of the Pleasanton salat, which not only preceded rain but also created a beautiful display of outward-looking unity. We rarely hear about Islamic concerns for salmon.

I found this page about the event to be particularly interesting. For those inclined to hear it, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s sermon is presented first alongside images of dry lakebeds, followed by a shot of the unusual clouds seen at sunset and finally excited footage of rain that fell the next morning. The last few minutes of video are worth watching even if you aren’t interested in a sermon that includes some social conservatism alongside its powerful denunciation of the economic sin that is behind the lack of rain.

The prayer itself is intense, and although I can’t understand the words it’s obvious that Yusuf is pleading, begging, beseeching Allah to send rain; I haven’t encountered anything that emotional in church lately. The video ends a couple of minutes of footage shot the next morning, by an unseen videographer joyfully praying in Arabic as water flows down a long-dry creek. It is one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a while.

Another religion with roots in the desert has also been busy seeking God’s help. There were a pair of Mormon-led interfaith prayer events with farmers in Nevada and Utah over the weekend. And a regular day of fasting that occurs on the first Sunday of the month was dedicated to prayers for rain.

And finally, there was another rain dance (a weekly event hosted by the San Juan Intertribal Council) at Mission San Juan Bautista. This is especially remarkable because it is an ancient and somewhat local ritual of those who are most connected to the land, held at a location intimately tied to their conquest by a new civilization that is unwilling to live within the limits of the land. It’s a great spot for repentance.

What does it all mean?

Set aside your “scientific” biases and look at the evidence that prayer is doing something: We had a large assembly of Muslims in one of our most hydrologically vulnerable communities, Mormons across the state, and Native Americans at an old Catholic mission all directing some deep ritual energy toward rain this weekend.

And whaddaya know? It rained.

So what are we to make of this? Are we entering a season of miracles and omens?

We face a profoundly difficult year – both here in California and everywhere that will be impacted by the dramatic agricultural crash underway. Effects will certainly include nationwide spikes in food prices as well as shortages and the displacement of thousands of people previously dependent on rural California’s ag-based economy at a time when jobless benefits and other safety nets are being shredded. This is going to raise some challenging social issues, to put it lightly.

At risk of sounding kind of nuts, things are getting biblical.

I am not claiming that God is going to punish the gays or infidels or liberals or whomever; indeed the best results so far seem connected to the prayers of those who don’t share my religious tradition. Rather, we are entering a period of profound social, economic and eventually political upheaval that is of the sort that people inclined to write scripture identified as pivotal moments in their histories.

We need all the help we can get. We need a miracle – or many small ones like what we (perhaps) just saw with these synergies of prayer.

Ultimately I believe that our survival depends on reclaiming and transforming our old belief systems before the cult of scientific capitalism and perpetual growth destroys us. In recent years much of my work on cooperatives has been focused on faith communities, and I have found a strong spiritual value in cooperation that transcends particular religions.

Going forward

Thinking back to that synagogue in Sacramento last month, I recall that Torah portion for the week (Exodus 13:17-17:16) included a scene where the fleeing Israelites were trapped between the pursuing Egyptians and the Red Sea. God asked Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (14:15)

The sermon asked us to consider what we can do. I found the suggestions to be fairly tame considering the severity of the drought, but a larger issue is the focus on individual acts of conservation.

I do think that we each need to reduce our personal consumption; to do otherwise is greedy and sinful. However, I’ve been struggling to figure out the collective responses to drought. We also need to face fires collectively. I know working together is essential and possible but so far I haven’t come up with anything beyond generalities like tearing up lawns to grow vegetables that don’t use much water.

However, perhaps there is something to these shared prayers for rain. Even if they don’t actually cause rain (in a scientifically provable way) they bring people together in faith that collective action can change our situation. Whether or not the rains come in response to prayers (or whether we agree on why they do), we definitely can use more sharing to get through this crisis.

We are all in this together. Let’s go forward.

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