OMAHA, Neb. — Labor Day is going to feel a lot like the beginning of Lent for Joe and Monica Hejkal.
The brother and sister have begun an interdenominational crusade called Nineveh Journey, which asks Christians to fast and pray for the outcome of November’s presidential election. The campaign will begin on Labor Day, Sept. 6, and end Nov. 2, Election Day.
"Our family was sitting around worrying about the state of our country," Monica Hejkal explained. "It seemed hopeless, so we felt we had to do something. Prayer and fasting seemed like the answer."
Monica, a 21-year-old Catholic student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said America is in a state similar to Nineveh, the biblical city Jonah called to repentance.
"Jonah was sent to tell the people that if they didn’t repent, the city would be destroyed in 40 days," she said. "It’s a story of hope because all of the Ninevites, great and small, put on sackcloth and ashes and repented and their town was saved. We see our country bringing destruction on itself if we don’t repent…. This is a way of turning that around. It’s also a journey. We do it step by step."
The Hejkals are not lone voices crying in the wilderness. There are at least four other prayer initiatives tied to the fall elections.
Priests for Life, the organization that encourages priests to promote the sanctity of life from the pulpit, is urging Christians to engage in "intense prayer" over the course of nine weeks, from Aug. 31 to Nov. 2. Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life describes the urgency to the prayer campaign as twofold.
"First of all, the magnitude of whom we’re electing — the president and senators," Father Pavone said in an interview. "Secondly, we seem to be at a point where the country is so divided on such basic issues. Life continues to be primary, and the candidates are clearly opposite each other on this question."
The group is asking participants to sign up at its website (www.priestsforlife.org) so it can collect a "spiritual bouquet" for America.
Americans are, in Father Pavone’s view, "beginning to wake up to the problem of judicial activism because of events over the last couple of years." Pro-lifers have long blamed that kind of "legislating from the bench," as some observers call it, for the Roe v. Wade decision. Father Pavone spoke of a more recent kind of judicial activism: the "redefinition of marriage," most notably in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s order to the state to issue marriage licenses to members of the same sex.
"The only way people can change judicial activism," Father Pavone said, is through the presidential and senatorial contests. It is likely, he observed, that the next president will appoint one or more Supreme Court justices, for example.
If all that sounds like an endorsement of one candidate over the other, Father Pavone points out that his organization is interested in principle, not party. "The message we proclaim would always be the same, no matter where the candidates come down on it," he said.
Priests for Life has set out four intentions for the novena:
— "that the nation will "embrace the moral values of a culture of life";
— "that America will reclaim her founding principles of faith and dependence upon God in public life";
— that believers will take an active role in the elections;
— and "that candidates will understand their responsibility to serve the people, to protect life and family, and to adhere to the law of God."
Like Priests for Life, Deacon Bob Ellis is campaigning for Catholics to participate in a 54-day novena of prayers for "an outcome of the November election which is pleasing to almighty God and provides most effectively of the implementation of his holy will in the lives of all." The 59-year-old permanent deacon in Green Bay, Wis., emphasized that the effort is entirely non-partisan.
He hopes the Internet will help the prayer campaign become "a global effort." After all, the outcome of the election has global ramifications, he said. "What happens in this country affects what happens around the world," said Ellis, who runs an automotive supply business.
Amy Ginski, 48, of Memphis, Tenn., has signed up to pray a daily rosary for the election from Sept. 9 through Nov. 1.
"There’s such power in praying the rosary — it’s a very hopeful prayer," said Ginski, who will pray the novena with her husband and 11 children. "We’re so glad that someone has organized this novena," she said. "We pray the rosary novena on many occasions for different intentions. It’s just so powerful."
Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., said he is encouraged by the effort. "Whenever people get together to pray for a good cause like this, it is a wonderful thing," he said in a statement.
Like the Nineveh Journey, the Mercy Project USA is based on an Old Testament event — Abraham’s pleading with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Margaret Miller, administrator of Holy Cross Academy in Oneida, N.Y., and the woman who started Mercy Project, proposes that participants pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day through Nov. 1 for the protection of the nation, an end to abortion and "all anti-life practices," the preservation of marriage and "a good outcome of the presidential election."
And Magnificat, a "ministry to Catholic women" based in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, has set Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the beginning of a rosary novena. The group also is calling on Catholics to pray and fast each Tuesday and spend an hour each week before the Blessed Sacrament. "Life may hang in the balance" in this year’s vote, the group says.
Father Michael Orsi, research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law, says lay-led prayer efforts like these are important. "Prayer invokes God’s inspiration at a time when people are trying to decide who is going to lead the country," he said. "Prayer should guide all of our important choices in life."
Ellen Gianoli of Bieber, Calif., said prayer is essential for America’s elected officials to turn back to God. "If we don’t have people at the top who believe in basic natural law and morality," Gianoli said, "things are going to get worse, not better."
Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.