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The Praying Pedestrian: A Lenten Discipline

Apr 7 2011
How praying for my neighborhood changed it (part 1 of a 2-part series).

In the nondenominational Bible churches of my youth, Lent was considered a "Catholic thing." But as I've attended PCA churches in my adulthood, I've gained appreciation for the church calendar and, in particular, this pre-Easter season of penitence. Observing Lent can include forgoing habits or foods, but it's also a time of adding something, such as a spiritual discipline.

For me, the discipline tied to my richest seasons of spiritual life has been prayer-walking.

I was properly introduced to prayer-walking during a visit to a friend's small California church in a cliff-side community of surfers and artists. For a few years they had walked the entire town every few months, taking a calendar or gift to each house where the owners welcomed them, and praying over every residence. I happened to visit the week of their quarterly prayer walk, and joined them in praying a verse for each house in the few blocks my partner and I were assigned to.

Ours was ordinary work, and it was hard to see how so few words could accomplish much. Yet my friends believed their prayers had gradually increased the community's spiritual receptiveness. And when I thought back to my most scarring stab at "spiritual work," on a summer evangelistic project, I noticed it was marked by a striking absence of prayer.

Once back home in Brooklyn, I started to realize how little compassion I had for my actual neighbors. One day, when I was walking home from praying for my own needs, I started to look at the street around me. I noticed more clues to the neighborhood's health than I expected. After a few days, I committed to pray for one particular block on my route to and from the Subway. Before long, the short prayer became such an entrenched habit that taking an alternative route became unthinkable.

Praying for a street you don't know, whose residents you don't know, is weird. But it can tune you into how many houses are in poor repair or on the market (a signal of change or loss). I got to know the place where homeless people bedded down. When I saw a cart and the mattress on the bitter night of Thanksgiving—as I hurried home to warm blankets and steaming cider, escaping 20-30 mph winds—I started crying. That night I couldn't pray at all; I just wept.

Then one night I saw a moving van. Newcomers! I thought of how my California friends greeted their new neighbors, hesitated, then waited until I saw someone approach the van. I asked the man how I could pray for him. He looked rather surprised, but gave it some thought and a serious answer. So did the three other people I asked over the next week or so. Each time the talks went better, and I learned more about the block—their concerns about rent, and a woman whose son had died of HIV/AIDS.

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The Praying Pedestrian: A Lenten Discipline