US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The billion prayer march

By Sarah Sharp | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
The billion prayer march: a play in three short acts

Act I. Enter Extreme Poverty. Much wailing and grinding of teeth. She falls to the ground and crawls offstage. Enter Jon Denn. Much pacing and wringing of hands. He sits down at his computer and creates

Act II. Enter Minister and Congregants. All turn toward audience and pray, "The world now has the means to end extreme poverty, we pray we will have the will." Repeat one billion times.

Act III. Enter Extreme Poverty and Jon Denn. Denn hands Poverty a suitcase full of cash. Both smile. They embrace and skip offstage hand in hand.

This is the (ridiculously simplified and highly idealized) story of, an interfaith organization that seeks to rewrite the tragedy of global extreme poverty with a happy ending by praying for the will to fulfill the United Nations Millennium Project and then keep going from there.  

Jon Denn, co-director of the Trinity Conference Center in West Cornwall, Connecticut, started as the first act in his "life play" about eliminating extreme poverty (people living on under $1 a day) by starting with the first goal of the Millennium Project: halving extreme poverty by 2015.

Denn was inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s: "There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will." Four decades later, Denn says, King's message still has an "unbelievable resonance" for the world of today. "The issue here is will; we already have the way."

Part of the Millennium Project involved 22 of the richest nations of the world pledging to donate a minimum of 0.7 percent of their gross national income to official development assistance programs. It has been over eight years since the pledges were made, but according to the Millennium Project website only five nations have actually reached this goal: Norway (0.93 percent), Sweden (0.92 percent), Luxemburg (0.87 percent), the Netherlands (0.82 percent), and Denmark (0.81 percent).

Another 11 nations have developed a timetable for meeting this goal. It is disconcerting to discover that the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, comes in second to last of these 22 nations with a paltry 0.22 percent and without any timetable for meeting the 0.7 percent goal.

While reflecting on this Denn recognized that it wasn't the lack of resources that was keeping the U.S. and other nations from providing the much-needed financial assistance, it was the lack of determination to make good on the promises of the Millennium Project-and the lack of public awareness of the Millennium Project, the 0.7 percent goal, and extreme poverty in general.

To combat these issues, Denn originally wanted to write a play-unfortunately, Denn couldn't think of a suitable structure for a play about extreme poverty that was both informative and entertaining. "People's attention spans are very short, and they don't want to be preached at for an hour."

Instead, Denn turned from the theatre to the real world for his stage and wrote a simple one line, seven second play (and prayer) addressing the real crux of the issue: "The world now has the means to end extreme poverty, we pray we will have the will." Denn would like this play performed (and this prayer said) for each of the one billion people living in extreme poverty today.

To publicize his "life play" he started, where he keeps track of the number of prayer pledges. The casting call for this play is ongoing and open to all-everyone lands a role by saying the prayer and getting others involved in praying. All proceeds go directly to the extremely impoverished, especially the financial support generated by individual and community involvement in holding our government leaders to their Millennium promises.

The prayer count on his website recently exceeded 800,000, and Denn laughs as he says, "At 800,000 performances, this has got to be the most staged play in the world!" Denn challenges people to believe in the power of prayer-however, we also need to believe in the power of our own ability to get involved and make a difference. It may be the answer to someone's prayer.

For more information about eliminating extreme poverty