The first thing her daughter’s diagnosis stole from Holly McRae was her words. Her memory of that day in 2009 is foggy, but the hospital staff later told her all she could muster at first was, “Jesus, Jesus.”

It was early summer, and a neurologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital had just told Holly there was a large mass in a “dangerous spot” on five-year-old Kate’s brain. Holly had brought Kate in after noticing a small hand tremor. She was sitting in the waiting room, filling out Kate’s kindergarten application, before she lost her words. She and Kate didn’t leave the hospital for another two months.

Back then, Kate was precocious and talkative, with wispy blond curls and cheeks that filled up like balloons when she smiled. She jumped on the bed before surgery. Her parents could barely process the shock of the diagnosis.

“I felt like my language was suddenly gone,” Holly said. “We didn’t have deep-rooted community yet, so it was like … who do we even call?” Though their church had been welcoming and kind, they were still new to the area.

Even so, Holly said friends showed up. Their worship pastor had an idea: Film a little video to update the congregation. Get people praying.

So Holly and her husband, Aaron, a pastor, sat down in the ICU lobby at Phoenix Children’s and shot a low-budget, numb-eyed video to explain Kate’s diagnosis and plead for prayer. Worship pastor Brian Wurzell uploaded it, called it “Pray for Kate,” and off it went.

In the first 24 hours, the video got thousands of views. Then thousands more. Celebrities shared it. The late Arizona Senator John McCain stopped by the hospital to visit the family. Dr. Phil promoted it (and would later invite the family onto his show). Kate made her way onto prayer lists worldwide.

At the time of Kate’s diagnosis a decade ago, CaringBridge—a kind of social network for sharing updates from people receiving medical treatment—had been around for years but was still relatively niche. The McRaes had seen another family in their church use CaringBridge for a similar health crisis, so they gave it a try. The site streamlines communication so that caregivers don’t have to keep sending updates to a bunch of different people.

In the weeks and months that followed Kate’s first surgery, thanks to the publicity from the “Pray for Kate” video, Holly’s CaringBridge site—which was open to the public—garnered a huge following. It turns out the situation was uncharted territory for both the McRaes and for CaringBridge.

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“I do remember Kate’s page—I actually still follow Kate’s page and her story,” said Sona Mehring, the founder of CaringBridge, who was acting CEO in 2009. “It became one of the most active pages very quickly. … It actually helped us prove that we could handle that kind of traffic.”

The team could tell when Holly posted an update, Mehring said, because traffic would skyrocket. The numbers are staggering: From CaringBridge’s inception in 1997 to the beginning of 2009, about 185,000 pages were created. From 2009 to 2019, that number more than tripled to over 608,000.

Prayers from Internet Strangers

Holly wasn’t thinking about publicity back when she started posting updates; she was thinking about survival. Still, Kate’s story went viral all the same. Prayers and good wishes started pouring in. Kate received mountains of mail in the hospital, which provided welcome encouragement and distraction.

Holly was grateful for the prayers but surprised by the response. “It’s funny how attention is less enamoring when there’s so much on the line. There were moments you wished no one knew her name and yet you were thankful that so many said her name in prayer,” she said.

It’s an odd conundrum to become “famous” right in the middle of a crisis, for that crisis. The McRaes couldn’t really have predicted the widespread attention they’d get; they were pioneers. Even Facebook users back then were still adjusting to the “Newsfeed,” then a relatively new feature but today the cornerstone of the site. At first, users complained that it was too “invasive” to scroll through personal updates.

Yet now, amid a barrage of personal details on social media, personal health news and fundraising have carved out their own corner of the internet, through crowdsourced sites like GoFundMe, which hosts more than 250,000 medical campaigns totaling $650 million a year.

Dozens of other well-known Christians have brought their health crises online, as social media offers the opportunity—and pressure—to turn prayer into a viral campaign. Los Angeles pastor Chad Veach shared his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare brain disorder with his large online following, and some—including celebrities like Justin Bieber—have even gotten “G” tattoos in her honor. Christian writer Kara Tippetts blogged about her battle with breast cancer, with fellow believers reading and praying along until her death in 2015 at age 38.

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More recently, Christian artist and calligrapher Lindsay Sherbondy, founder of the brand Lindsay Letters, was inundated with prayer from a growing online community after her daughter, Eva, suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident last summer when she was 7. Tens of thousands of followers liked and share each Instagram update, tagged #EvaLove.

Lately, the social media landscape for prayer campaigns or health-care fundraising has grown more crowded. These days, the comments section on Kate’s CaringBridge page is peppered with notes from other families, who may offer prayer and support but then request their own support and include a link to their own sites. These requests also come up in Instagram comments for families like the Veaches and Sherbondys.

A 2016 study from the University of Washington found that roughly 90 percent of GoFundMe accounts don’t meet their goal. People with wide-ranging personal networks (like celebrities) are likely to raise more. So are people with curable conditions. So are the photogenic, the upbeat, and those promising an exciting life once they’re past the crises. Some marketing agencies have even started offering services to help families and entrepreneurs curate their Kickstarter or GoFundMe pages to be more successful.

For the McRaes, the wide response to Kate’s crisis was likely due to a combination of factors: The social media trend was relatively new, Kate was young, and Holly was a compelling blogger. But instead of dissecting it, Holly simply welcomed the deluge of encouragement.

Not only was the flood of prayers from strangers a kindness, the sheer volume of them was a whole other gift. “It was also a reminder that, man, if God is doing this, what else will he potentially do in and through this?” she said.

Viral campaigns often have a way of drawing even those unfamiliar with Jesus to sympathize with young patients and their families—sometimes turning to God on their behalf.

Holly said: “We had people tell us, ‘I have never in my life fasted before. But I felt impressed that if I really wanted to pray and intercede for your daughter, I was challenged to fast, and I did for the first time.’”

Kate’s circumstances and urgent needs for prayer gave the uninitiated just the sort of impetus they didn’t know they needed to get started. “For some … it was a new way of relating to God,” Holly said. “It gave them this new language that they were cutting their teeth on with Kate.”

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I Felt God Say, ‘You Need to Post This’

Three days before Christmas in 2017, Jaxon Taylor was strapped to a gurney and flown by helicopter to the University of California Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento. He was two years old, and his parents, Bethel Music CEO Joel Taylor and wife Janie, had absolutely no idea what was happening. The usually healthy and happy Jaxon had been getting sicker over the past few days. He had already been admitted and released once from their local hospital in Redding. And then suddenly, the doctors were using phrases like “worst-case scenario” and “some children don’t make it.”

Jaxon had contracted E. coli—the Taylors still don’t know the source—and then developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a dangerous condition that can cause kidney failure.

Taylor texted an urgent prayer request to several close friends, from inside and outside the Bethel Music world. Then he went online.

“I didn’t want to bring everyone into my world … I wasn’t a huge social media person,” Taylor said. “But clear as day, I felt God say, ‘Right now, you need to post this.’” So, with swollen eyes and unwashed hair, he posted a video from his hotel room, begging for prayer.

Within hours, he was gaining Instagram followers by the thousands. Nearly 240,000 people watched that first video. He went from about 4,000 followers to more than 100,000 over the course of Jaxon’s illness.

“I was just like … this is incredible … this is the church,” Taylor said. He was especially moved by messages from parents saying their kids were praying. He got comments that churches in Russia and Asia were praying corporately. He’s still approached regularly—at conferences, at coffee shops—by people who say that they prayed for Jaxon.

To Taylor, Jaxon’s is a story of a praying world and a full recovery. Like Holly, he mostly defends the earnest, faithful people who rallied at the altar for Jaxon. Still, things occasionally got weird. During Jaxon’s hospital say, Taylor said his family was inundated with mail and gifts, which they treasured. But people also started driving to the hospital, even from several hours away.

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Some of these uninvited visitors claimed they were called to pray over Jaxon, right at that very moment, right at his bedside. Taylor was humbled and grateful but said he and wife Janie also learned fairly quickly that to protect their family time and the peace in Jaxon’s hospital room, they had to turn people away. It didn’t always go well. “One person drove out and then was really upset, angry at my wife,” Taylor said.

Alongside friends in our feeds, these stories can cultivate a sense of false intimacy or even a type of digital “rubbernecking” as followers wait for updates.

It happened with Taylor during Jaxon’s illness, and it’s happened with the Sherbondys in the midst of daughter Eva’s brain injury rehab.

“Oh, dear friends. I hear you …” Lindsay wrote in one post. “You want an Eva Love update, and gosh I wish I could give you more. I wish this were like a TV show, or a book I was writing, and not our actual life. But it is. And it’s so tender … I have to know and trust that God will continue to use you beautiful people and your prayers … even if I can’t post regularly!”

Holly experienced some weirdness too, but doesn’t dwell on it. “There’s definitely people that meet her that feel a deep affection for her,” Holly said, “and sometimes I wonder about it … Is it fascination, or intimacy created through prayer?” But Holly has experienced the same intimacy, she said, when praying for others. She understands it.

She’s more concerned, she said, with the possibility that praying for Kate or others online might keep some people from actively engaging in their own flesh-and-blood communities.

“Investing in someone’s suffering online is an easier alternative to engaging suffering in our physical communities,” Holly said. “There is far less responsibility and far more convenience online.”

Megan Hill, an editor at The Gospel Coalition and author of Praying Together, shares Holly’s caution. She said praying for strangers and friends alike can be a beautiful way to follow Paul’s exhortation to ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17). But she said Christians should focus their prayers especially on those in their natural circles. “It’s our unique privilege to pray for the salvation of our unbelieving children and next-door neighbors,” she said. “If we don’t remember those ordinary and often-overlooked people in prayer, who will?”

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That red flag went up early for Holly. She remembered right at the beginning of Kate’s sickness, in the ICU, meeting a little boy down the hall with an IV in his arm and zero visitors. It turns out he was in foster care. “I wrestled with that,” Holly said. “I knew God did not allow all these people to come support Kate in prayer because he loved her more. He loved that little boy two doors down equally as much.”

A few months later, as Kate was hospitalized for chemotherapy over Christmas in 2009, the McRaes started “Kate’s Crazy Cool Christmas,” asking their online community to donate gifts and financial help to other families facing pediatric brain cancer. They aim to find families with little outside support, Holly said. Last year was their eleventh year doing it.

The McRae family’s impulse to bless others points to a truth about prayer. Surely we’re moved to pray in a crisis because God made us that way. But our motivation to ask for prayer is partly a request to be seen, said John Starke, lead pastor at Apostles Church Uptown in New York City and author of The Possibility of Prayer.

“In some ways when we’re asking people to pray, we’re longing for people who are shoulder to shoulder with us,” he said. We want someone else to feel the depth of what’s happening to us. Maybe Holly felt despair when she saw the solitary little boy because it felt for a moment that no one else saw him.

Taylor said he felt that too. He struggled to make sense of the response to Jaxon’s situation. He thinks the timing—it was Christmas, people were off work, maybe sitting at home, scrolling—may have contributed. Surely his network of prominent Christian musicians was a significant factor drawing attention to his family’s plight. With a vague sense of penance, he said he still takes very seriously the requests he gets to pray for other children.

But it’s not a zero-sum game, promises pastor John Piper. In a post on his Desiring God website, Piper said there’s no Scripture to suggest that a prayer request said by millions as opposed to dozens is accomplished because the prayers “twist God’s arm.” If God does grant a widely shared request, Piper said, it may instead be motivated by his own glory and the spread of his gospel. He references Paul’s invitation in 2 Corinthians 1:11, saying, “Join me in praying, so that when God answers, God will be glorified in answering many prayers.”

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Piper said there are other factors to prayer, such as our faith, our need, and our desperation. Starke agreed, calling to mind Genesis 21. In that chapter, Abraham casts Hagar and the pair’s son, Ishmael, into the wilderness. Mother and son quickly run out of food and water, and Hagar “lifted up her voice and wept” as she waited, in horror, for Ishmael to die. She was one woman, alone. And still God heard her. “‘Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there,’” an angel tells her (v.17). The boy lives and grows into a nation.

The World’s ‘Special Kate’

Kate is 16 now. She’s a freshman in high school and still has the same beautiful curls and movie-star eyes she did at five. She’s still on an oral chemo regimen and is in “uncharted waters,” according to her oncologists. Holly said they only know of one other child who has lived this long with the type of cancer she has. An MRI in late 2019 was negative for cancer growth.

Holly has kept more things private as Kate has gotten older. They’re still approached by strangers sometimes, and Holly has learned something else: While Kate’s diagnosis is a big part of the McRae family story, it’s also become a part of others’ stories. It birthed prayer groups, drove nominal Christians to pray regularly, and gave petitioners who couldn’t find their words a structured way to go to the Father.

“I feel like when we get to heaven, it will be the sweetest thing to think however God chooses to use Kate, and how he already has, that these people who have invested in prayer for her are a part of that. That’s a part of their story too,” Holly said.

She still shares occasional updates and prayer requests on CaringBridge, where visitors still check in. One commenter, Cathy, posted out of the blue last summer. “Thinking about you,” she wrote. “The world’s Special Kate.”

Maria Baer is a contributing writer for CT based in Columbus, Ohio.

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