Preach for America: Tony Lee leads Ballou in prayer. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“I promise to go to the championship for football,” proclaimed one male student.

“I promise never to forget my friend Buckie who passed,” a girl stated.

“I promise to continue and always be a godly Christian woman,” said Principal Karen Smith. “[Prayer] really does set your day right,” she told the crowd of some 60 to 70 people on April 4.

Ballou Senior High School’s first Prayer for Peace club concluded with students, school staff members, and local activists holding hands in a circle and making pledges to their community. The meeting was part Christian service and part self-affirming gathering at a District public school that garners attention primarily during its worst moments, like when three students were shot near the school in January.

The event marked the migration of a familiar D.C. political tradition across an institutional and generational divide. Prior to its Ballou iteration, the prayer breakfast summoned images of District politicians using pastors and the rhetoric of hope to bolster their grip on power.

Annual prayer breakfasts began in the mid 1970s, under Mayor Walter E. Washington. The events brought together people from all over the District—church congregants, ministers, leaders of the churches, ANC commissioners, civic association leaders, and the business community, says political consultant Marshall Brown.

And why did they come to pray with the mayor and several hundred other people?

“Some was fellowship, some was politics, and some was, uh, business,” says Brown.

Some of the old customs played out at Ballou’s prayer breakfast—only in high school terms. Students monitored which of their classmates showed up. And student organizers Mesha McBride and Amanda Hawkins wanted to make sure they had the right faces at the tables.

“In our school, our athletics teams are very popular,” says McBride. “The football team just about has—I’m not going to call them groupies, but people that admire them. They can just about pull anything off.” McBride’s marketing efforts paid off, drawing about a dozen reps of Ballou’s football squad.

But if there’s one spot where high-school prayer breakfasts diverge from the proper, upstanding political prayer breakfasts, it’s in the fliers. Here’s a snippet from the Ballou circular, which is a bit too street for your average mayor or council candidate:

“This is Not a Religious Thing, It’s a Unity Thing…No More (R.I.P) Resting in Peace! If we can all learn to (L.I.P) Live in Peace.”

The event’s special guest pastor was down with the flier’s message.

“I think that’s an excellent way to shape it,” says Reverend Tony Lee, from Community of Hope AME Church in Hillcrest Heights, Md. “It’s not about me coming in and trying to make Ballou a Christian school. It’s about dealing with the fact that we need to learn to live in peace and lift up each other,” he says.

(As for the event’s legality, the laws allowing religious activities in schools have repeatedly been affirmed by the Supreme Court, says Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Schools must allow equal access to their facilities for both secular and religious student activities during noninstructional hours; however, school employees cannot promote the activities, he says.)

Pastor Lee made few overt religious references. Instead, his sermon mentioned a news story about a woman who got stuck to her own toilet seat for two years, which Lee used to urge people to stop negative patterns of behavior.

“Turn to someone and tell them, ‘Neighbor, get up off the toilet!’” he preached.

“Get up off the toilet!” people said.

Besides Lee, Anwan Glover, a D.C. native and an actor from HBO’s recently completed series The Wire, and Jeffrey Tyler, Heaven 1580 AM radio host, addressed the crowd.

The gathering was coordinated by several students and the nonprofit group Peaceoholics, some of whose members regularly work with Ballou students, both mediating school fights and providing counseling.

Peaceoholics may have found their target audience. “This [group] wasn’t our best-behaved youth,” Principal Smith said after the breakfast. “These kids have the leadership qualities to put people in a good or bad direction. It starts here.”

“It made me think differently about people,” says 10th-grader Shaquan Moore after the program. “Some of these boys are so loud and disrespectful. They barely be in class, and they make a scene when they come to class.”

At Ballou, organizers hope to hold events twice a month for the rest of the school year. The Peaceoholics are also launching a similar effort at Anacostia High School on Friday, April 18.

The schools, in other words, may be shoring up a tradition that seems to have lost inspiration in recent years, says Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast.

“[Mayor Adrian M.] Fenty has had a real lack of relationship with the faith community. Prayer breakfasts and clergy gatherings have become obsolete with this administration,” he says.

That may be a relief to some local politicos. The mayor’s prayer breakfasts were “too long,” says Arrington Dixon, a former councilmember and council chair in the ’70s and ’80s. “You know how church can go. Everyone feels good, and things kind of get extended,” he says.

At Ballou, in contrast, all the attendants had to disperse by 8:45 a.m. That’s when first period starts.