Late last month the AFL announced its policy to introduce multi-faith prayer rooms at all AFL venues after being approached by their part time multicultural ambassador and Richmond player Bachar Houli (www.roar.com.au).
Houli just happens to follow Islam and was finding it hard to follow the requirements of his faith regarding prayer at AFL venues. Opinions began flying from all corners of the country. It is wonderful that in Australia we are entitled to our own opinions, and in true Aussie style, this topic was no exception. Even former Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, didn't hesitate in voicing his distaste. "I think it's absolute rubbish. It's not practical, it's stupid, it's political correctness gone mad, "states Kennett (theaustralian.com.au). Others are claiming it's another one of Islam's schemes of 'taking over' this country (891 ABC Adelaide).
Funnily enough, a prayer room has been in place at the MCG since 2005, blissfully out of the media's eye, harming no-one, offending no-one, and providing solitude and peace to those who seek it. It's only news now because the AFL is making an attempt to get some public relations mileage out of it (roar.com.au). For seven years people have been able to pray in solitude at football games and now it is causing major public outcry. It is not just for Muslims. Anyone can go in there to pray. But the fact that a Muslim has been a driving force behind the initiative has created a large issue.
Multi-Faith Prayer Room
It is not a move to make sport a religious affair or to convert people to Islam or to any faith for that matter. Fans aren't being forced to remain silent as people pray, nobody is being forced to eat halal pies or say the Lord's Prayer before the game begins. It was simply a request by a Muslim directed to the AFL, a request which was responded to positively. If people of any faith feel they need to pray during a game of football then they now have that option.
Forget the Muslim argument altogether, and remember that prayer rooms are hardly mosques built on the MCG's turf. In fact they are ordinary, white, nondescript rooms that are open to all beliefs and faiths. The AFL are standing firm in their decision to create such rooms. We've got an obligation to make sure that we continue to make AFL venues and games welcoming to people of all different backgrounds, and prayer rooms are just a part of that," AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson said. Etihad Stadium spokesman Bill Lane said, "We're a multicultural society. A request was made a couple of years ago for a prayer room and we stand by our decision." (www.afl.com.au).
God is everywhere, so why a room
In considering whether I agreed or disagreed with the whole idea, I realised I was totally on the fence. I passionately believe God is everywhere and we don't need a room to pray to Him. If I was at the football I could pray quietly in my seat, if I felt I needed to. The Bible clearly says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to 'pray without ceasing'. Not that we should be walking around with our eyes closed and praying 24/7, but we should be in an attitude of readiness to communicate with God, including while at the football. Proverbs 15:3 says 'The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.' God is everywhere, all the time, and is ready and waiting to hear our prayers at any time and any place. The Bible also gives many examples of how people prayed, including kneeling, standing, lying, sitting, hands lifted, fasting, speaking in the heart. There are no rules. If it's from the heart, it's real and God hears it.
Boldness for Christ
On the other hand, the fact that a Muslim had the boldness and courage to ask for something from the AFL to assist with his beliefs (and other fans and players) is quite inspiring. He is so committed to his faith and is that passionate about abiding by the daily prayer rules that he is doing anything he can to find a place to pray comfortably, abiding by the requirements of Islam. Islam requires prayer five times a day, including washing to cleanse, must face Mecca, perform certain movements and recite readings from the Quran (www.uniya.com.au). And now they can continue this while attending a football game. I think as Christians some of this boldness for the sake of Christ wouldn't go astray. How a multi-faith prayer room works leaves much to be desired but since there are going to be a whole lot of prayer rooms around Australia's sporting venues, we may as well get in there and start praying for blind eyes to see (John 12 verse 40).
As Christians in Australian society it can sometimes be a lot easier to hide our faith away. It can be embarrassing to pray in public and rarely do you see a Christian kneel in the middle of the pathway to pray. We can worry about what people think if we tell them what we truly believe and the fact that we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But the simple fact that Jesus dies on the cross for our sins, and set us free, means we don't have to live by religious rules and regulations. We are free and the world needs to know this.
Prayer rooms do not affect anyone's freedom at a game. We are more Australian than ever and the viewing experience will remain unchanged. Those who love Australian Rules football should be welcomed with open arms, not turned away because they do something different. Rather than get all uppity about a prayer room inspired by Muslims, let us instead embrace the diverse cultures sport has the ability to unify and see people as Jesus saw them – someone to love.
Laura Veloso is wife to John and the mother of 3 young boys. She is trained in child welfare and primary school teaching and has experience in overseas missions and youth leadership.
Laura Veloso's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/laura-veloso.html