BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Struggling to confront a worsening homicide rate, the mayor of Birmingham asked pastors and citizens Friday to don burlap sacks and ashes Friday in an Old Testament-style sign of biblical repentance.
Mayor Larry Langford said his "sackcloth and ashes" rally at Boutwell Auditorium was inspired by the Book of Jonah, where residents of the ancient city of Ninevah wore rough fabric and ashes as a sign of turning away from sin.
A pastor who helped organize the rally said Langford purchased 2,000 burlap bags that will be handed out at the event.
"We believe things begin to dramatically change when the mayor, or leader, calls for prayer. I don't think there's ever been a city called to sackcloth and ashes," Green said.
Since he took office last year, Langford has held three prayer rallies as a way of addressing crime and violence. Bibles were handed out at one of the events.
"This city needs to humble itself," said Langford, a professing Christian.
So far this year 27 people have been killed in Birmingham, compared to 19 at the same time last year.
The mayor's prayer rallies may run the potential of creating a dispute over church-state separation. Olivia Turner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Alabama, said the group has had complaints and is discussing the events.
"The worry I have is that there's a government endorsement of religion," said lawyer Bill Messer, a state ACLU board member. "Certainly, the mayor has a right like anyone else to express his personal religious beliefs. As mayor, acting on behalf of the city, religion should not become part of the government itself. If it's an official government event, that's troubling."
The Rev. Vernon Huguley, pastor of Our Lady Queen of the Universe Catholic Church, doesn't see a problem with a mayor calling for prayer.
"I believe they need to bring their faith into their profession," he said. "We've got to do something. What's been done in the past has not worked. This is something new."
Birmingham city officials have turned to prayer in the past to cope with the city's crime problems.
The former chief, Annetta Nunn, promoted the idea of turning people toward God to quell the violence in the city's neighborhoods, and she instituted a Bible-based plan of civic responsibility for cleaning up rundown neighborhoods.
The current police chief, Langford appointee A.C. Roper, has a lengthy resume that includes being an ordained minister. He was in the military and worked with the Hoover Police Department for nearly two decades.
Roper supports the repentance rally, but he said law enforcement cannot stop there.