Thousands gather at prayer march on the National Mall

WASHINGTON – Thousands of Christians gathered on the National Mall in Washington on Saturday, waving U.S. flags, kneeling in small prayer circles alongside monuments, singing and listening to speakers who called on the nation to come together and heal.

Two groups – one organized by New Jersey-based pastor and popular author Jonathan Cahn, the other led by Evangelist Franklin Graham – emphasized slightly different objectives but came with a shared focus central to many millions of Christian conservatives: repairing a country they say is in the midst of a spiritual crisis.

“We came to pray and heal,” said Diane Hildner, an elementary school teacher in Leesburg. “We want people to be happy again and not worried or afraid, not be afraid of retribution for saying your views. We know our nation is in trouble, so we stand here to pray to our God to heal our nation.”

They had come on the day President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a devout conservative, to the Supreme Court. While there were many on the mall wearing pro-Trump hats or shirts, several people interviewed pulled back from explicit partisanship, instead focusing on division and change in a country they say has become intolerant of the views of conservatives.

Hildner had come with a friend, another Loudoun County teacher. She said they feel less free to express their religious views, especially in the past six months. She said she felt anxiety putting up a U.S. flag or posting a bumper stickerfor a conservative candidate. She lamented that comments she viewed as benign could easily become politically and emotionally loaded.

Others were more explicit in saying why they had come out to march and pray. Several people said they saw a troubled nation, and that trouble stems from abortion, violent protests, communism and a turning away from God.

Followers of Franklin Graham pray at the base of the Washington Monument as they march from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill, during the Prayer March at the National Mall, in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Followers of Franklin Graham pray as they march from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill, during the Prayer March at the National Mall, in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Followers of Franklin Graham march from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill, during the Prayer March at the National Mall, in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Cahn, the New Jersey pastor, called the march he organized the Return, a 24-hour time of prayer. He told the crowd that God had created the biblical Israel, but its inhabitants had turned away from their divine purposes. Then 400 years ago, he said, America was created “for the glory of God and the advancement of the faith.”

If you want to hear a “politically correct message, you came to the wrong sacred assembly,” Cahn said to loud cheers from a crowd that filled a half-block of the grassy mall. He boomed about what he sees as the communist threat to America.

A few blocks away, Graham launched thousands on a prayer walk with seven stops between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol. People prayed at the World War II Memorial for the military and police, at the Washington Monument for solutions to the pandemic and the end of abortion, and at the National Museum of African American History and Culture for respect and reconciliation between the races – among other stops.

Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, said in a promotional video that the march was appropriate because it coincided with Trump’s selection of a Supreme Court justice and that the president needed prayer because “it’s maybe the most critical time in recent history.”

“There are those that would like to tear this nation apart, to keep a conservative justice off the bench. The president said he was going to appoint conservatives,” Graham said. “He’s keeping his word; he’s kept his promise. We now need to just pray that God would watch over and protect him.”

Graham and Cahn are both supporters of Trump. In August, Graham announced his gathering, while Cahn began promoting his back in March.

Hildner and her friend, Denise Reheuser, said neither had ever come to D.C. for a rally or march but felt called by God when they saw an ad for Graham’s prayer walk.

Laura Guilfo, a Medicaid program manager, and Carla Augustus, a retiree, flew from Baton Rouge for the event. Guilfo had heard an ad on conservative Christian radio and made a plane reservation almost immediately.

The women said the country needs prayer and its supernatural powers to fight off an enemy who “is coming to divide it,” Guilfo said. The division, the women said, was being manufactured by the mainstream media.

“The country isn’t as divided as they say,” she said, gesturing to the thousands milling peacefully near the Washington Monument, where flags were at half-staff for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and near the White House, where Trump was about to announce his replacement at a news conference. “The evidence is all around you.”

The women, both Black, saw the summer’s focus on systemic racism as part of an evil plan to divide. There is no race, they said, and there can be racial prejudice from every group against another – it’s not particular to White people against Black people.

“We look at it from a Christian worldview, not a secular worldview. Evil is now good, and good has become evil,” Guilfo said, as her friend nodded. “There is no ‘social justice.’ There’s just justice.”

Ann Nelson, a 58-year-old nurse, began to cry as she spoke about why she and her friend traveled from South Carolina. The women had just listened to Graham speak and then knelt at the base of the Washington Monument in prayer.

“People don’t want to be divided,” Nelson said, almost overwhelmed as they spoke about wanting to end abortion, racism and violence against “people who have suffered unjustly.”

Nelson and her friend, Lana Shaw, who runs a homeless ministry, said they decided to come to the District of Columbia. three weeks ago and feel an intense spiritual urgency. Riots and racial violence are the country reaping the fact that it hasn’t faced its demons, Shaw said.

“Politics will never get us to unity. It’s only Jesus.”