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'Prayers for Damar': Faith emerges in moment of crisis even as America grows more secular

Like millions of Americans, I turned on the game Monday night. Although a devoted Chicago Bears fan, I was eager to catch the contest between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills and see two top NFL quarterbacks, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen, square off for supremacy of the AFC.

I started watching a few minutes into the game and immediately knew something was wrong. Players on both teams were shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes with tears, faces ashen with concern. Announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman spoke in hushed tones.

Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin, was on the ground, unresponsive after a play that involved wide receiver Cincinnati wide receiver Tee Higgins.

Buffalo Bills players huddle and pray after teammate Damar Hamlin #3 collapsed on the field after making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Buffalo Bills players huddle and pray after teammate Damar Hamlin #3 collapsed on the field after making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Americans united in shock

We all watched the replays, of Hamlin rising from the ground, then suddenly collapsing. Those of us who’ve watched sports our entire lives have seen a lot. We’ve seen ugly brawls and fights. We’ve seen gruesome, sometimes paralyzing injuries. We’ve seen an earthquake disrupt a World Series. But only once before have we seen a player's life hang in the balance on a professional football field.

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Thankfully, it seems Hamlin is recovering, though he is still in intensive care. But we shouldn’t move so quickly past this moment, in which Americans were united in shock and fear and many turned to what is often the only comfort in times of peril: prayer.

Buffalo Bills fans attend a candlelight prayer vigil for player Damar Hamlin at Highmark Stadium on Jan. 3, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York.
Buffalo Bills fans attend a candlelight prayer vigil for player Damar Hamlin at Highmark Stadium on Jan. 3, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York.

Surveys have found that America has become a less religious nation, that the faith that once bound communities together seems frayed and fragile. But on Monday night and in the days that followed, appeals to faith were ubiquitous across social media and on our television screens, a sign that for all its decline, religion still animates many people.

There was the emotional scene on the field as both teams knelt and prayed. There were appeals for prayer across social media from ordinary fans and from athletes, celebrities and public officials. And there were broadcasters letting go of any reserve to publicly appeal to God on behalf of Hamlin.

Several NFL teams posted on social media that they were praying for Hamlin. Jim Kelly, the Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback, tweeted: “The prayers continue for Damar and they won’t stop. Only the Good Lord knows!”

Want to honor Damar Hamlin?: Learn CPR. It made all the difference for him.

ESPN analyst stopped show to pray

Dan Orlovsky, an outspoken commentator and former NFL quarterback, stopped during his NFL Live show on ESPN and prayed for Hamlin. “We believe that coming to you and praying to you has impact . . If we didn’t believe prayer didn’t work, we wouldn’t ask this of you, God.”

Many also spoke of the fragility of human life. Benjamin Watson, Super Bowl winning tight end for the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints, in a conversation with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, spoke of the fragility of human life and his faith in Christ. “Life can change in the blink of an eye," Watson said. "Damar’s injury has made us all wrestle with this truth. It has served as a reminder of own mortality. While we pray for him as he fights for his life, we must ask ourselves where will we spend eternity?”

'Not left or right, but deep': How people of faith can help to heal America's divisions

Even many who are not professed believers, spoke of the comfort of faith. Sportscaster Nick Wright, host of the show First Things First on Fox Sports, pointed to his colleague Chris Broussard, an outspoken Christian, and said he longed for that depth of faith in these moments, “At times like this, when there’s an inexplicable tragedy, you’re almost flailing about…Why? Why?”

What is it that causes us to reach for prayer in these moments? What is it about the power of faith to help us make sense of tragedy, loss and fear? Perhaps it is because we are forced to acknowledge that even in a modern age, even with the wonder of technology and the promises of cutting-edge medicine, human life is fragile. We are often helpless and hopeless.

The Christian story says that our instinct to gasp at the fragility of human life is natural. The Apostle James wrote that life is but a “vapor” that is here quickly and then vanishes (James 4:14).

The NFL was right to stop play on Monday night, to let the intensity of the competition and the importance of playoff seeding and the impact on the schedule recede into the background because, as many tweeted and said on air, human life is more important.

Our desire to preserve lives

This truth we get from the Bible, which opens with God’s declaration that every life is sacred, crafted by a loving Creator. Every human, Genesis tells us, is a reflection of the divine. The rush of the paramedics, the kneeling in prayer, the tears all are a testament to our desire to preserve life.

Don't lose that moment of empathy: How Americans came together for Bills' Damar Hamlin

In a supposedly secularizing nation, our true instincts emerge in times of crisis. We appeal to something outside of ourselves, to a power beyond us, to save us.

Our greatest stories tell this same tale, from superhero movies to our interest in the paranormal. We know there is a world beyond this world. Christianity tells us that not only is this true, but that we seek something bigger than ourselves because we are made to worship. C.S. Lewis, one-time skeptic turned believer, said that we know we were “made for another world.”

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The Christian gospel says this other world is possible because of the event we celebrated last month, God’s visit to the world he made. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus make possible what we long for on nights like Monday, a reversal of the tragedy of death, personal transformation and restoration of a broken world.

So perhaps the reports of America’s religious decline are greatly exaggerated and, at least on one dark night in Buffalo, America started to pray again.

Daniel Darling is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement and the author of several books, including "The Dignity Revolution" and "A Way With Words."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Damar Hamlin's injury prompted prayers across social media, nation