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Winnipeg’s new police chief’s call for prayer stirs controversy

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October 28, 2012

WINNIPEG, MB, Oct. 28,2012/ Troy Media/ – If you want to know something about the power of prayer, consider this: Devon Clunis is still two months away from formally becoming Winnipeg’s new police chief and he has already made a name for himself across Canada just by talking publicly about the subject.

The comments by Clunis that made headlines came in a Christian online publication as he asked: “What would happen if we all just truly – I’m talking about all religious stripes here – started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that?”

It was, he said later, “an innocent comment meant for good.”

But it put him squarely into a controversy over whether a public official should be openly advocating prayer.

His comments were celebrated by some, pilloried by others and ridiculed by those who doubt that prayer can stop a bullet or prevent a crime in a city that often has the highest rates in Canada for murder and other violent offences. “Might as well pray, nothing else has worked,” commented one wag on an online forum.

What few stopped to consider is that Clunis is advocating something that already happens every day. The work of people who pray has actually done a lot to prevent crime in the worst parts of Winnipeg and many other Canadian cities.

As Clunis knows well, he only has to stroll a block or two from his downtown office to see religious groups do important work in the fight against crime.

Nearby at the Siloam Mission, a mission of the evangelical Christian Church of the Nazarene, hundreds of homeless people are provided with food, clothing and shelter daily, giving them an option other than begging or stealing.

A little further away on Main Street, the newly opened Centre for Youth Excellence, run by the Christian charity Youth for Christ, provides thousands of inner city youths with access to sports and fitness facilities, even an indoor skateboard park, that keep them off the street and away from trouble.

Stalwarts like the Salvation Army have been looking after the downtrodden in downtown Winnipeg for decades.

The kind of work such groups do is exactly what Clunis was talking about – “prayer backed up by action” – as he explained while dealing with the fallout from his initial comments.

It’s not surprising that Clunis holds his view on prayer. He is an evangelical Christian and a police chaplain for the past 14 years.

Clunis says he has never proselytized to other officers and he does not consider prayer a replacement for proper policing. “‘I’m not saying I’m asking police officers to sit down and pray and that’s going to be our initiative,” he said.

Even with such reassurances, many people are not comfortable with a police chief using such language.

In the United States, no one blinks when politicians and public officials like police chiefs invoke God to bless America. But not so in Canada.

Here we tend to pay lip service to people having strong foundations of faith in their personal lives, and then get nervous when they start talking publicly.

Yet prayer plays a role in the lives of many public officials.

There has been a group on Parliament Hill since the 1960s holding regular prayer meetings for MPs. It organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa.

At this past year’s breakfast, Father Raymond de Souza, a well-known columnist and teacher, made the case for more religion in public life, not less.

“Our politics then needs religion,” he said. “Not only religion, of course, for divine revelation does not provide a legislative program. Yet if religion and religious believers are driven to the margins of our common life, including our political life, we deprive ourselves of both the intellectual and practical energies that are essential to many of the noble initiatives of our life together.’

Likewise, Clunis is not depending on divine revelation for a policing strategy. But Winnipeg would be the poorer for it if his faith is pushed the margins as he tackles some of the most serious crime problems in urban Canada.

Troy Media columnist Bob Cox has been writing from different parts of Canada for 30 years. He is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

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