It’s Almost Like Praying

By Javier Viera ’00 S.T.M.

In October 2017, in the aftermath of the devastation left by Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the huge Broadway hit Hamilton, released a song entitled “It’s Almost Like Praying.” The title is borrowed from the lyrics of another song, “Maria,” also from a Broadway hit musical, West Side Story. A collaboration with numerous Puerto Rican and Latine performers, the Miranda song is both remarkably simple and complex. In essence, it does nothing more than lyrically name each of the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico, while interweaving the refrain, “It’s almost like praying.” Yet this simplicity masks a deeper complexity and dynamic, contrasting the devastating effects of Maria the hurricane with the hopeful infatuation of Maria the song. For Puerto Ricans the contrast was obvious and piercing.

The work of dignifying and advocating for people in unjust, exploitative conditions is precisely what prayer is. That endeavor is more prayerful than the pablum that often passes for prayer. 

A question lingered for me, however. What was almost like praying? It took me repeated listening to the song to realize what Miranda was shrewdly saying and subversively exposing. At that time when the struggles on the island were beginning to fade from the front pages, a disastrous presidential visit brought denials about the actual death toll, excuses for lackluster relief efforts, and a condescending paper-towel-tossing incident to victims of the storm. Miranda’s song was released to boost funding and relief, as well as to sustain support and visibility for those intolerably suffering in the aftermath. This is what Miranda implied was almost like praying—giving visibility and support to those whom the powerful and indifferent would rather quickly forget and ignore. Naming all 78 towns, one by one, was partly an act of defiance, ensuring none was forgotten, all were included, and the scale of devastation was fully exposed. Yet, the music pulsed with a spirit of hope and joy, resilience and pride, not only protest and pain. The juxtaposition of these realities, something quite familiar to Latin Americans, captured what was almost like praying. It was praying.

Prayer Made Visible

It’s the word almost that troubled me. Why almost? Why wasn’t it prayer to unveil reality and unapologetically advocate for a suffering people?  Why wasn’t it prayer to subversively make visible, name, and celebrate those whom the powerful would rather not see or erase altogether? The endeavor to dignify and advocate for people in unjust, exploitative conditions is precisely what prayer is. That work is more prayerful than the pablum that often passes for prayer. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said of his work in the civil rights movement, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”[1] The artists who collaborated with Miranda were doing more than singing; they were singing a prayer, a transgressive prayer akin to those which have long been uttered in different ways across religious traditions.

As I consider the “future of God” in the contexts where I serve, I don’t worry about the relevance of what many consider an outdated idea or the accompanying practices that seem to belong to a different age. I see evidence everywhere of people longing for connection to God, and quietly suffering from a lack thereof. The wisdom, challenge, and hope found in faith traditions are as resonant and ached for as ever. Instead, I worry more about the ways we narrowly and rigidly define the sacred and the religious, thus often excluding sacred, religious expressions and encounters because they do not look or sound like what the religious elite deem acceptable or sufficiently pious. The biggest obstacle in God’s future is not relevance or interest; rather, it is our reliance on such imperfect messengers and their imperfect institutions, who more often stand in the way of authentic encounter and connection with God than serve as conduits. 

Rebuilding the Edifice 

In this way, I see the decline and fracturing of the Christian church in North America and Western Europe as a potential gift to the world, an opportunity for Christians who have grown increasingly alienated from their altars and pulpits to be welcomed into renewed engagement and encounter with the living God. If this decline forces the church and other religious traditions to reconsider and expand our understanding of how humanity encounters the Divine, that can only be a positive result. When prayer can be both the recitation of ancient formulations that have shaped people across the ages and drawn them into the presence of God, and the revelatory, defiant, dignifying work of Miranda’s collaborators who also bring their listeners into the presence of God, the future is bright. 

In response to contemporary critiques levied against ecclesiastical structures and practices, some might be tempted to harden their stances and insist that all we need is to ride out the storm and stick to what has worked for millennia. Yet I have found that such intransigence only leads to a calcification of mind, heart, and practice. Theologian Jon Sobrino has written that “the traditional mosaic of the church, with all its pieces and colors, has shaken apart and now must be fitted back together again. In the face of such an arduous and demanding task, with the dangers it might entail, one could … appeal to doctrinal security and calling on the hierarchy to take a firm stance. … Surely doctrine and administration continue to be necessary and important. But of themselves alone they will not be enough to rebuild the edifice.”[2]

An Unapologetic Faith

What would be enough? An adventurous spirituality not driven by fear or the fallacies of false precision, certainty, and control. A spirituality capable of seeing where God is being revealed and encountered beyond the confines we have created and authored. This is why I remain an unapologetic Christian and devout follower of Jesus. The adventurous God of Jesus is not defined by the few places designated for divine encounter, but instead by a thirst for a righteous people characterized by the capaciousness of their love, care, and advocacy for another. This is the same God who said, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5.21-24)

I suspect that the motivation behind “It’s Almost Like Praying” was a burning desire to let justice roll on like a river. Justice for a long-suffering yet resilient and proud people. Justice for all who have been forgotten, erased, or gone unseen. Justice for all who must bear the indignities of those who perceive themselves alone to be the agents of God. Justice for all who are assumed to be outside the favor, grace, and mercy of God. That’s why I insist the song is a prayer. And the sooner more of us start praying like that, the sooner we will no longer worry about our future with God.

Javier Viera ’00 S.T.M. is President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,
where he is also Professor of Education and Leadership. He came to Garrett-
Evangelical in 2021 after serving six and half years as dean of Drew University Theological
School. An ordained elder in the New York Conference of The United Methodist
Church, he also holds degrees from Florida Southern, Duke, and Columbia universities. In 2020, he received the YDS Distinction in Theological Education award.

[1] Susannah Heschel, “What the March at Selma Means to the Jews,” Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Jan. 21, 2015.

[2] Jon Sobrino. “Spirituality and the Following of Jesus,” in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, edited by Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuría (Orbis Books, 1993), p. 234.