In wake of Hamlin injury, prayer gets public show of support

An elevated call for prayer in recent days shows not only that more people believe in its power, but that studies indicating a lack of belief in God may be premature.

Those sentiments have been reflected by Southern Baptists and others during the recovery of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin. The second-year safety was dismissed Jan. 11 from a Buffalo hospital, just over a week after an on-field cardiac arrest episode that required CPR.

Prayers began moments after Hamlin fell to the turf, Bills team chaplain Len Vanden Bos told Baptist Press. The following days focused on concern for Hamlin’s recovery, but also a desire to pray.

“When something like this hits close to home, people who may not be in the habit of praying or following Jesus very closely … their natural tendencies are to reach out to God,” he told Baptist Press.

Opinions have varied on the subject, including what widespread calls for prayer in an increasingly secular culture may say about the depth of those prayers.

In a photo on his Twitter account Jan. 8, Damar Hamlin (center) expressed love for his teammates and those who supported and prayed for him after his injury.

“The overall national response to Damar Hamlin reveals that most people believe in God and turn to Him in crisis moments,” said Jeff Iorg, president of Gateway Seminary. “Rather than critique those responses, we should be encouraged by them and capitalize on the opportunities to have gospel-centered conversations with people.”

In a Jan. 3 post on the seminary’s publishing site, The Gateway, Iorg went further on the subject of prayers during a crisis.

“When life is overwhelming, most people revert to their core convictions and beliefs — and for most people, that includes belief in God,” he wrote. “While most news about organized religion in the United States indicates an overall decline in church participation and denominational allegiance, the same surveys indicate the vast majority of people still believe in God.

“Tragedy brings that out by revealing where we turn for help when circumstances are overwhelming. Heartache puts people back in touch with their deepest spiritual longings and reduces them to resting on what really matters.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Don Whitney said it’s “way too early to speculate on the depth of this week-long prayer call.”

“We ought always to be grateful to hear of any Godward turn,” said Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean of the School of Theology. “That’s true whether it’s by individuals or large numbers, such as we’ve seen in the response to Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse.”

The day after Hamlin’s injury, all 32 NFL teams changed their Twitter avatars to “Pray for Damar.” ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky prayed live on-air over the matter. A study released by the Pew Research Center last spring found that 55 percent of American adults pray daily.

People are more compelled to pray when a tragic event is personal. That was the case for Vanden Bos, who had come to know Hamlin and saw how the second-year player endeared himself to teammates.

In this case, it happened on an NFL field, but the setting could be anywhere and might call on established believers to lead in those times.

“One of the ways we grow in our faith is to bring it right into our jobs, families and everyday life,” Vanden Bos said. “Don’t keep it to Sundays, but live it out where you are.”

Whitney said the public response to prayer shows a widespread acceptance to it that can factor in religious liberty cases.

“There may be more people than the opponents of religious freedom want to recognize who say, ‘I pray, and there are times like this one when I’m not ashamed to say I pray. And there are times when I’m not afraid to publicly join others in prayer and encourage others to join us. And I don’t want the government or anyone else to tell me I can’t do that,’ ” Whitney said.

“I’d like to see more connections to Christ and the Bible than that, and let’s pray that we will. Nevertheless, I can rejoice in that, and pray that God will use it as a spark of a true, biblical, spiritual awakening.”

— Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.