BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) — Along the irrigation canal that cuts through this centuries-old New Mexico town, a small group of churchgoers gathers to recite the rosary before tossing rose petals into the water.
Remnants of a tradition that stretches back to the days of Spanish explorers, the humble offerings are aimed at blessing this year's meager irrigation season and easing a relentless drought that continues to march across New Mexico and much of the western half of the U.S.
From the heart of New Mexico to West Texas and Oklahoma, the pressures of drought have resulted in a resurgence of faith — from Christian preachers and Catholic priests encouraging prayer processions to American Indian tribes using their closely guarded traditions in an effort to coax Mother Nature to deliver some much needed rain.
On Sunday, congregations across eastern New Mexico and West Texas are planning a day of prayer for moisture and rain.
"We're worried, but we're maintaining our traditional ways and cultural ways. Together we pray, and individually we pray," said Peter Pino, administrator of Zia Pueblo. "We haven't lost hope in the spiritual world, that they'll be able to provide us resources throughout the year.
"We're not giving up. That's pretty much all we can do at this point."
In its wake, the drought has left farmland idle, herds of cattle have been decimated, the threat of wildfire has intensified and cities are thinking twice about the sustainability of their water supplies.
In New Mexico, the renewed interest in the divine and the tension with Mother Nature stems from nearly three years of hot, dry weather. There is no place in the country right now that has it worse than New Mexico. The latest federal drought map shows conditions are extreme or worse across nearly 82 percent of the state. There are spots that have fallen behind in rainfall by as much as 24 inches, causing rivers to run dry and reservoirs to dip to record low levels.
In neighboring Texas and Oklahoma, the story is no different.
The faithful gathered Wednesday night in Oklahoma City to recite a collection of Christian, Muslim and Jewish prayers for the year's first worship service dedicated to rain.
The Catholic bishop in Lubbock is planning a special Mass at a local farm in two weeks so that farmers can have their seeds and soil blessed. The archbishop of New Mexico's largest diocese has turned to the Internet and social media to urge parishioners to pray.
The prayer is simple: "Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain. Then the land will rejoice and rivers will sing your praises, and the hearts of all will be made glad. Amen."
In Bernalillo, the parishioners from Our Lady of Sorrows church recited the rosary as they walked a few blocks from the church to the irrigation canal on a recent Friday evening. At the front of the procession, two men carried an effigy of San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers.
"I think people need to pray for rain," said Orlando Lucero, a school teacher and county commissioner who organized the procession. "We used to do it in every community and in every parish. It was a beautiful tradition that disappeared. Now I'm hoping that we can get other parishes involved."
In Clovis, hospital administrator and active church member Hoyt Skabelund hopes thousands join Sunday's prayer day.
"I don't know that moisture comes because we pray," he said. "You're going to have ebbs and flows and not all rainfall is because someone prayed and not all droughts are because someone didn't pray. But I do believe that prayers are answered and faith in God and a higher power unlocks the powers of heaven."
After all, praying can't hurt, he said.
The simple act of digging a new post hole in eastern New Mexico tells the story of how dry it is. Moist dirt used to turn up several inches below the surface. Now, Skabelund said, someone can dig several feet and not run into any moisture.
In dry times, it's natural for farmers and others who depend on the land to turn to God, said Laura Lincoln, executive director of the Texas Conference of Churches. Still, she and others said praying doesn't take away the responsibility of people to do what they can to ease the effects of drought.
Church leaders are urging their parishioners to conserve water and use better land-management practices like rotating crops.
"We have to play our part," said The Rev. William Tabbernee, head of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. "Prayer puts us in touch with God, but it also helps us to focus on the fact that it is a partnership that we're involved in. We need to cooperate with God and all of humanity to be responsible stewards of the gifts God has given us through nature."
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