Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has thrown the weight of his office behind a public prayer event that asks people to help cast a “canopy of prayer” over the city on April 29, and says the election-year timing of the call to God is purely coincidental.
Stimpson also dismissed the argument, raised by one national interest group, that his involvement violates the concept of separation of church and state. One local denominational leader said it could be Mobile’s most visible public faith event in 15 years.
The main architect of the plan echoes Stimpson, saying the effort has been years in the making and that while the mayor’s support has been pivotal, the event was in no way conceived to bolster his political standing. In fact, said organizer Fred Rettig, he’s been worried from the beginning that the mayor’s stance might expose him to criticism. Consequently he and other organizers have bent over backward to avoid improprieties such as using public resources to develop and conduct the event, he said.
“We knew going in that we had to be careful,” said Rettig who, along with his wife Barbara, came up with the idea that would become Canopy Over Mobile.
Many first learned of the call this week via a video posted on Stimpson’s Facebook page, in which the mayor reads a decree expressing that:
“Whereas we desire to have true God-ordained unity, prosperity and growth in our community, with our foremost hope being to have Thy will be done for His kingdom’s ultimate purpose, where our businesses will thrive, where our families will grow harmoniously, where our sons and daughters will come home, and where those who feel captured in their circumstances will be set free, we acknowledge that to transform our city, the Lord will have to change the hearts and minds of our citizens.”
The decree goes on to “acknowledge that God, as the giver of all good and perfect gifts, can give us God-fearing men and women to be our spiritual, governmental, business and civic leaders” and to make a virtual prayer of Stimpson’s “One Mobile” campaign theme: “we acknowledge only through His divine intervention and His glory can we create One Mobile to be the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020.”
The inference that the video is basically a campaign ad wrapped up in a call to prayer is easy to draw. Stimpson said the reality is otherwise and that the timeline of events makes clear that his motivations weren’t political.
“People will say that, but it was not a campaign ad,” Stimpson said. “This is completely different from my perspective.”
Years in the making
Stimpson said he actually wrote his decree back in November 2015, for an annual city event, the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. And it was nothing out of character: The previous year, he’d given an address about the importance of praying for good government; that text is still available on the city website.
Fast-forward to 2016. Fred and Barbara Rettig had come up with the idea of a prayer event that would promote public unity by drawing people into the streets to pray. They started bouncing the idea around and eventually pitched it to Stimpson, who liked the idea.
Fred Retting describes himself and his wife as people who aren’t ministers in the sense of being ordained leaders of a congregation, but who have a ministry of sorts: They’ve long prayed for Christians to apply their faith to public affairs in ways that would bring peace and prosperity to Mobile.
“Me and my wife have had a heart for the city for 20 years,” he said. His business ventures include an auto paint-and-body business, and he hasn’t been shy about putting his money where his prayers are. Years ago, he “about went broke” paying for billboards promoting prayer.
Last summer, prompted by a series of events in his life that told him the time was at hand to mount a special effort, Retting came up with the idea of people joining together to walk the streets and pray for the good of the city. His wife helped hone the idea, suggesting the “canopy” concept.
By fall he was ready to pitch the idea to church and community leaders. He did so at a “vision casting” event held at the downtown venue The Steeple, a former church used for concerts and other events. Stimpson was on hand, and after making his pitch, Rettig put him on the spot.
“I said, ‘Mayor, do you want to say something?’ Retting said. “He said, ‘I’m in.'”
Both men agree that where Rettig had thought it might be a month-long prayer campaign, Stimpson pushed hard for it to be a more concentrated one-day effort. Rettig said the mayor also urged him to simplify the game plan, and put him in touch with people who could help him translate his dream to reality.
“We were the vision casters,” Rettig said, “but we didn’t know how to put the wheels on the car.”
The movement seems to have first come into the public realm around Feb. 24, when a Canopy of Prayer page was launched on Facebook. The page immediately began to promote a Canopy Over Mobile event on April 29, and a related website, www.canopy.one. Eventually a “Port of One” music and worship event was announced for April 1 at the Mobile Saenger Theatre, and that is where Stimpson’s video was played for the first time.
Stimpson said he’d been asked to speak at the event but was out of town. So organizers asked if he could record a video presentation showing his support for Canopy Over Mobile. He agreed, and figured the decree he’d already written would serve the purpose nicely – so when visitors came to shoot the video, it became his script.
The purpose of the video is to support Canopy Over Mobile, but the decree doesn’t actually reference the event. “The two were completely unrelated,” Stimpson said.
After reading it, Stimpson makes a few comments on the video: “When I first heard of the concept of the canopy of prayer, we thought we would walk all the streets of the city of Mobile, praying for the city and all of our citizens, I was immediately captured,” he says. “I was first told that maybe we should do this over a 30-day period, but I really felt like, you know, we should be able to do this in one day. There are enough God-fearing people in this city who can carve out just a few moments to walk their street or their neighbor’s street and sign up and say, ‘I will walk the streets of Mobile praying for God’s divine intervention.'”
After the video was shown at the Saenger, Stimpson shared it on social media, the better to spread word of the event he was endorsing.
The Port of One and Canopy websites use similar language to describe the event. “The strategy is a partnership between the Mayor of Mobile’s office and area churches, ministries and leaders to conduct a massive one day prayer-walk in Mobile on April 29, 2017. The vision is to cover every street in Mobile County (over 13,000!) with prayer,” reads the description on one of the sites. “The mission is simply to be carriers of His presence, His love and His healing while praying for our city. We firmly believe that we must operate in His Spirit, with joy and peace, as we pray for restoration, hope and salvation for the people of Mobile.”
Both sites state that “Our Biblical Model is Nehemiah.” Nehemiah is a significant figure in Jewish and Christian history: He was cup-bearer to the king of Persia around 445 B.C., and was sent to serve as governor of the province of Judah. He’s credited with rebuilding the oppressed city of Jerusalem, starting with repairing the walls around it.
Rettig said the promotional and organizational work is all being paid for with donations from himself and others. Participation is voluntary, and those who register at the event’s website will be sent some suggested prayers to say as they walk their streets on April 29. People may walk in groups or individually, and there probably will be a window of 8 hours or so where the prayer takes place that Saturday. Rettig said the day might also involve a concluding rally, but plans for that are still taking shape.
“To me it’s unusual in that this is not something that is, I’m going to say, pastor-led,” said Stimpson. “It’s more grassroots.”
The Rev. Monsignor Michael Farmer, vicar general for the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile, said the archdiocese is aware of the event and expects local Catholics will opt to participate on a church-by-church or individual basis.
“It’s up to each individual parish and there’s no opposition to it whatsoever” on the part of the archdiocese, Farmer said.
Farmer went on to say that this might be the most visible ecumenical public faith event in Mobile since the city’s 2002 tricentennial celebrations. According to reports from the time, that city-sponsored event was specifically designed to feature Christian, Muslim and Jewish participation and drew an audience of about 100 after being moved indoors due to threatening weather.
As for Canopy Over Mobile, “I think it’s just a wonderful occasion for prayer and for the wellbeing of the city,” Farmer said.
Whether any local criticism of the event, or Stimpson’s role, will emerge remains to be seen.
Concerns and hopes
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization active on a national level, said there are definite problems from his organization’s perspective.
“This seems to be a clear violation of the separation of church and state,” Luchenitser said after viewing the Stimpson clip. “In the video the mayor sounds like a minister, not a mayor.”
The American United stance is that elected officials shouldn’t do anything that “presumes to promote religion over non-religion or favors one faith over another.” Officials shouldn’t participate in such events, let alone actively promote them. “Public officials have no business doing that,” Luchenitser said.
“This is pretty egregious,” he said, characterizing Stimpson’s decree as “highly sectarian.”
Luchenitser said the video didn’t strike him as an effort to win votes, but implied that if it were, that would almost be an improvement. “I don’t think this can be defended by linking it to a political campaign,” he said.
“We would urge the mayor to end his involvement with this particular event,” he said.
Stimpson waved off any church-state concerns, saying Canopy Over Mobile is no more offensive than the prayer breakfasts regularly held from the local to the national level.
“There’s always been engagement,” he said.
His main hope, he said, is that people will understand that Canopy Over Mobile is fundamentally intended as a call for unity. Its themes, he said, are beneficial to all.
“If you read to me what’s written in the proclamation about what we want for our city,” Stimpson said, “these are things that every mayor would want for their city.”
“Our ministry is praying and encouraging people,” said Rettig. “The whole idea is when people pray, we open up an opportunity for God.”