Every year, the Central Christian Church in Wichita, Kan., has "Repentance Sunday" and seeks God's forgiveness.
During a period of meditation, worshippers are asked to write their sins on pieces of paper. Then everyone goes to the front of sanctuary, where the notes are burned in urns.
"It's always a very moving service," said the Rev. Joe Wright, who leads the 3,000-member congregation. "Tossing your sins into the flames is something that really touches you."
This year, "Repentance Sunday" began a chain reaction that touched America. Wright was still thinking about the service the next day when a church member who is a Kansas legislator asked him to pray at the capitol, since the pastor was going to Topeka for hearings on gambling. By the way, he was told, please bring a copy of your prayer for the records.
So Wright wrote a few lines and, as the legislature opened on Tuesday, Jan. 23, he bowed his head, read the prayer and then handed it over. He doesn't remember receiving any strange looks at the time, but a newspaper reporter did ask some questions hours later. As Wright drove home, his car phone rang and the church secretary bluntly asked: "What have you done?"
The easy answer is that he read a prayer about sin. The complicated answer is that Wright jumped into America's tense debate about whether some things are always right and some things are always wrong.
His prayer said, in part: "Heavenly Father ... we confess that we have ridiculed the absolute truth of your word and called it moral pluralism. We have worshipped other gods and called it multi-culturalism. We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle. We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have neglected the needy and called it self- preservation. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare."
Wright's staff stopped counting telephone calls after the first 6,500 and he still gets dozens each day. He has heard from all 50 states and many foreign countries. He has been on dozens of radio shows and the subject of numerous TV and print news reports. The prayer has been read in other legislatures, causing everything from quiet applause to loud jeers.
"I thought I might get a call from an angry congressman or two," he said. "But I was talking to God, not them. The whole point was to say that we all have sins that we need to repent -- all of us. ... The problem, I guess, is that you're not supposed to get too specific when you're talking about sin."
Wright said he didn't try to aim to the left or right or consciously try to fire both ways. A major theme in his preaching, he said, is that "people who think either political party is going to solve this country's real problems are dreaming. ... Politicians aren't big on absolute truths, these days." If he had an agenda, it was to pray about the sins he sees daily in ministries linked to the inner city, suburban families, crisis pregnancies, sexual confusion and other hot issues.
That's what he was thinking about as he wrote: "We have killed our unborn and called it choice," "shot abortionists and called it justifiable," "neglected to discipline our children and called it building esteem," "abused power and called it political savvy" and "coveted our neighbors' possessions and called it ambition."
Whether he intended to or not, Wright has become a symbolic figure in an election year that will almost certainly focus on issues of morality and character. He also lives in Kansas.
"No, I haven't heard from ... anybody close to Bob Dole," he said. "If they asked me to pray at the Republican convention, I guess I'd say `yes.' I'd be glad to pray at the Democratic convention, but I'd be rather surprised if they asked me to. ... Truth is, I'll pray anywhere I'm asked to pray, so long as people don't try to tell me what I can pray."