The senior citizens who gather at the Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels dining site in Kennewick for years have prayed as a group before lunch is served.
But a new policy set by the organization that runs the meal program is putting a stop to the long-standing practice, at least for the time being. The change comes after some complaints were made about group prayers at meal sites.
And some seniors are upset.
"I figure as a Christian, I should be able to pray anywhere that I want to pray," said Pat Dunavant, 83, of Kennewick, a regular at the weekday lunches. "I'm very proud that I have a God who listens to me, and I'm not ashamed of it and I'm willing to share it with everybody."
The policy doesn't ban prayer at the meals altogether, but says staff and volunteers won't "lead, sponsor or participate in prayer or religious practices as part of the Meals on Wheels program services. This includes asking someone to pray or turning time over to someone for a group vocal prayer as part of our meal service."
The site manager may hold a moment of silence for private prayer or personal worship, the policy says.
John Rupp, CEO of Senior Life Resources Northwest, which runs Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels, said the policy was prompted by a couple of recent events at meal sites and is the result of a lot of thought and discussion.
The meal program serves clients with a wide range of religious beliefs -- or none at all -- and "we want to do everything we can to assure that everybody (feels) welcome and that they are comfortable coming into our meal sites," he said.
Meals on Wheels provides food to the homebound and also offers meals at several designated sites throughout Benton and Franklin counties, including the Kennewick Senior Center.
The Kennewick site is the busiest.
About 30 or 40 seniors showed up for lunch Wednesday; Rupp also attended to discuss the policy and answer questions.
During the back-and-forth, Bob Woolsey, 84, of Kennewick, described the prayers -- led by a rotating group of seniors -- as simple and nondenominational, with thanks given to God for the food and volunteers.
"We also thank for a beautiful day out there. We thank for anything that comes to our minds," he said, adding that the policy seemed to come out of the blue.
He told the Herald some of the seniors who attend the lunches don't pray regularly on their own and rely on the verbal group prayers to guide them.
Several seniors said anyone who doesn't want to pray could easily step out of the room -- and they don't see why the group prayer tradition that stretches back decades has to go.
Barbara Mosher, 68, of Pasco, said she was disappointed by the policy. "I feel that they took our privileges away. Don't we have any privileges?" she said, adding "I think it does us all good to have a good prayer."
One Meals on Wheels volunteer, Tom Brower, announced during the lunch that he had resigned over the new policy.
"We live in America. We have freedom of speech. We have freedom of religion. ... Why can't we just say a prayer? It's not even a prayer, it's a blessing. That's all we're doing," he told the Herald.
Rupp said he is sensitive to the concerns. He talked about the events that led to development of the policy. In one case, at another meal site, one of the clients regularly led a group prayer and began veering into political commentary that offended other seniors at the site, Rupp said.
"The other issue had to do with your site, here, where an individual challenged us about our staff being involved in soliciting and participating in your community prayer," Rupp said. "They raised the issue that we were engaged in actual support or promotion of a particular religious group."
He wouldn't say who brought the challenge.
Rupp said the new policy is to provide guidance for staff and volunteers. He described it as "kind of a halfway point," aimed at accommodating varied religious views while still allowing for personal prayer.
Woolsey said the state Legislature and U.S. Congress open their sessions with verbal prayers, and Rupp agreed to look at those prayers.
Rupp also noted the policy says Meals on Wheels isn't responsible for the independent daily welcoming routines and announcements that senior associations handle at some of the meal sites. "If Kennewick chooses to do something like that, under that type of auspice, that's their business. Maybe that's a point of compromise there," Rupp said.
He said he will update his organization's board on the seniors' comments.
Before lunch was served Wednesday, seniors said the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, it was time for the moment of silence. At least one table of seniors clasped hands and said their own quiet group prayer. Dunavant, who was among them, later told the Herald that however the policy discussion pans out, "I'll continue to say a prayer before I eat, no matter what."
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald