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The Nobel Prize and the practice of prayer

On Friday morning, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work." I was traveling this weekend so it's possible that I missed some key coverage but I am not sure how well religious angles were explored in stories about these women. I thought the New York Times did the best in a story that included these bits:

Among women of Yemen’s Arab neighbors, however, the choice of Ms. Karman was cause for celebration, both for women and Islam. Nadia Mostafa, a professor of international relations at Cairo University, said the prize was endowed with “political significance.”

“Islam has always been associated with radical terrorism, intolerance and more,” she said. “Giving it to a woman and an Islamist? That means a sort of re-evaluation. It means Islam is not against peace, it’s not against women, and Islamists can be women activists, and they can fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.”

Ms. Gbowee, 39, was cited by the Nobel committee for uniting Christian and Muslim women against her country’s warlords. As head of the Women for Peace movement, she was praised for mobilizing women “across ethic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war” that had raged for years in Liberia until its end in 2003 and for ensuring “women’s participation in elections.”

Her organization was founded in 2002 when Ms. Gbowee rallied women to sing and pray to protest fighting in a fish market.

An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times gives a hint that there might be something worth exploring in Gbowee's story:

In 2001, Liberia was in the grip of a civil war that had been going on for years and that had decimated the country. More than 100,000 people had died, many of them children, and countless women had been raped. As many as a third of Liberians had been displaced. Much of the country's infrastructure — its sewage and electrical system, roads, hospitals and schools — lay in ruins. Thousands of boys had been pressed into fighting for one side or another, fed liquor and drugs and turned into killers.

Gbowee, then a newly graduated social worker and struggling single mother of four, had herself lived in a refugee camp for a time, and had been forced to send her young children away to Ghana for their safety. Anguished and angry, one night she had a powerful dream in which a mysterious voice ordered her to "gather the women to pray for peace." That vision led to a weekly prayer gathering. But she knew it would take more.

Carol Mithers is the author of the op-ed and the coauthor, with Leymah Gbowee, of the memoir "Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War."

It turns out that some of the best pieces about the role religion played in Gbowee's work came from Odyssey Networks, which I'm sorry to say I hadn't been aware of before. The group, which uses electronic media to tell stories about faith, is a service of the National Interfaith Cable Coalition. Let's look at them.

The first video talks about the role her religious faith played in her decision to launch a peace movement. In fact, she ends by saying that faith is a big part of everything she does in life.

The second video is about her reaction to winning the Nobel Peace Prize and its significance. She argues that her work would be impossible without her faith and some of the benefits of her faith.

Clearly many of the media reports didn't find Gbowee's words on the practice of prayer terribly important. I wouldn't have had any clue about this angle if I hadn't begun digging after reading the op-ed. So these videos are a nice addition to the coverage of the most recent Nobel Prize winners.

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