NAUGATUCK — Every morning, as routinely as he brushes his teeth and combs his hair, Frankie Rivera prays.
“God, thank you for your creation,” he prays. “Thank you for your wisdom, and thank you for always being there for us.”
Rivera, 59, grew up in Puerto Rico and immigrated to the United States at age 17. He made a home here, met his wife here, raised two children here.
“I’m so thankful for living in a nation like United States,” he says.
So Thursday, the National Day of Prayer, Rivera was among five members of Pinebrook Assembly of God in Naugatuck who formed a circle on the borough green, joined hands and prayed for the nation.
“Today has been highlighted as public praying,” he said. “Normally you pray at home, you pray in the car, you pray as individuals, families or as a church—but today it’s more open.”
A joint resolution of Congress, signed by President Harry S. Truman, declared the first National Day of Prayer, in 1952. President Ronald Reagan designated its annual observance on the first Thursday of May, in 1988.
But while many Americans, like Rivera, take the day as an opportunity to conduct a typically private act in public, others take it as a violation of the First Amendment, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Last month, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, ruling on a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, deemed the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.
“In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to pray,” the Wisconsin federal judge wrote.
President Barack Obama’s administration appealed the ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago, and despite her opinion, Crabb added her decision should not be considered a ban of the National Day of Prayer, until the appeals process is exhausted.
A national controversy did not deter Naugatuck Mayor Bob Mezzo from making an official proclamation, urging borough residents to observe the occasion.
“I’m a person of faith, and I believe that as long as we respect that people have differences of faith, the concept of it, itself should not be dismissed,” he said, moments after local organizer Michelle Kalogrides concluded an opening prayer, at noon on the green. “I don’t push my faith on others, but it is a very important part of my life, and I don’t have a problem incorporating it into public life, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner of those who may believe differently.”
Kalogrides, a Naugatuck Board of Education member, has orchestrated the borough’s observance of the National Day of Prayer each of the last two years. She says she doesn’t make any big decisions—including the many her school board has faced in recent months—without praying, and adds she has witnessed the power of prayer many times in her life.
“Years ago, I had an injury, and I could have been paralyzed,” Kalogrides said. “I fractured my spine in two places that if it met, I was gonna be paralyzed. I wouldn’t be standing here today.
“I was attacked nine years ago,” she continued, citing another example, adding that she narrowly escaped the confrontation. “So I see God’s hand in my life. My husband lost his job; we lost our home. And we could fall apart with all these things that have happened in our life, and God has told me to make a choice: ‘Choose like the world does, and fall apart and drink and just not believe in me or you can show people why you serve me.’ And that’s what I’ve chosen to do, is to show him why I serve him because he’s been faithful.”
Kalogrides called Wednesday’s gorgeous weather one more prayer answered—after thunderstorms a year ago—and said she was pleased by the turnout, bolstered by the 1:30 p.m. arrival of St. Francis of Assisi School. The entire student body clustered around the gazebo on the green and read together a series of prayers furnished by the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Deputy Mayor Tamath K. Rossi led the reading.
By then, Frankie Rivera had left, back to the American life he’s built over the last four decades. The next prayer he’d say would likely be silent and almost certainly less visible. But he figures God hears them all anyway.
“There’s a lot of things that I’m thankful for,” he said. “So God has been great, especially in guiding me and guiding my family, and I just have to thank God. … I truly believe that everything we have comes from our creator, God.”