That time Sonny Perdue prayed for rain

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Nearly 10 years ago, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue stepped to a podium outside the state Capitol and led a solemn crowd of a few hundred people in prayer. Demonstrators chanted in protest as he spoke, while a handful of pastors lined up beside him with eyes cast upward toward the heavens.

"We've come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm," Perdue said after a choir provided a hymn.

That hour-long prayer vigil is back in the spotlight as Perdue is one of the finalists to be Donald Trump’s agriculture chief. And one national media outlet after another has mentioned Perdue’s state-sanctioned plea to a higher power for a downpour.

At the time, Georgia was at the center of a disastrous drought spreading like an inkblot across the South. And Perdue, then in his second term as governor, had ordered water restrictions, launched a legal battle to block the release of Lake Lanier’s waters and appealed to President George W. Bush for help.

There was more, too. Perdue's administration urged people to voluntarily slash their own water use even more, to cut down on showers, to showcase their dying lawns and dirty cars as a badge of honor. With some projections showing Lake Lanier with just a few months of water supply left, water conservation was constantly in the news.

The Nov. 13, 2007 vigil came at a low point in the drought. It hadn’t rained for two weeks, and Perdue started talking about the need for a prayer service after an early November meeting in Washington over the state’s water crisis.

His office sent out invitations for the service a week in advance, and noted to reporters that Perdue had held similar prayer services in the past. So had his predecessors: In 1986, then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris held a prayer service in hopes of ending another historic drought.

(Harris would recall later that rain started falling right after the vigil ended. "You could feel the spirit of the Lord was there," he said.)

Perdue’s service was held on the statehouse steps, attracting more than 250 people, dozens of reporters – and 22 protesters with a local atheist group, Atlanta Freethought Society, waving signs that read “Hail Priest-King Perdue” and “Pray on the Church Steps, not the Capitol Steps.”

As the service began, a church choir belted out “What a Mighty God We Serve” and “Amazing Grace.” Some swayed with the rhythm, some stood with eyes closed and arms outstretched. A trio of Protestant ministers joined Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

"God, we need you," Perdue said. "We need rain."

Rain it did not. At least not immediately. As the vigil ended, the sun shone through what had been a cloudy morning. In fact, for the next two weeks after the prayer, the state’s epic dry streak grew worse.

The governor was not the least bit discouraged.

"God can make it rain tomorrow,” he told the gathered reporters. “He can make it rain next week or next month.”

Then, over the next few weeks, the skies loosened up a bit. December was wetter than normal, January was drier than average, and February was about on track.

Still, the drought lingered for months more. There were more pleas for rain, including one from an Eastern Shoshone elder named Bennie "BlueThunder" LeBeau who staged a drum-pounding rain dance in June 2008 on the Capitol steps.

And it would not end until 2009, when enough rain soaked Georgia to bring most lakes and rivers back to normal levels.

As for Perdue, he largely avoided discussion about whether his prayer worked. His spokesman at the time, Bert Brantley, recalled going into Perdue's office about six months after the prayer to tell him of the precipitation bounce. He wanted to leak it to the media since there had been much criticism of the prayer service. Perdue shot him down.

"He said, 'No way,'" Brantley recalled. "He was certainly thankful for the rain, but he felt like making a big deal about it would look like he was taking a victory lap and taking credit for the rain himself, which was never the point."