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Private Talks With God Go Public

Faith: In venues from post offices to the Internet, believers are joining prayer circles. The surge has raised questions about the meaning of praying itself.


Before dawn near Tucson, a group of Native American boys runs from the east to accompany the rising sun, as their way of calling on a higher power.

After a blizzard in Cincinnati, a team of born-again Christians shovels driveways to give thanks and praise.

And around the world, thousands of Hassidic Jews sign onto the Internet to commune with the most holy.

Unlikely as it may seem, these groups are all doing the same thing--praying together. What has long been a private pursuit for most people, outside of weekly worship service, is becoming a shared, even a social event in many quarters.

A growing curiosity about all religious traditions and a long established passion for every sort of club are stoking the enthusiasm. Yet, the unconventional packaging of so many groups has even the enthusiasts asking a basic question: What is prayer? Some wonder, too, whether certain types of prayer can be counterproductive.

Today's prayer groups are often finely focused. Groups form to pray a drug dealer out of town, or comfort those who are ill or persuade City Hall to put up a needed stoplight. There are prayer circles for members of a certain profession--athletes, business executives and postal carriers have their own gatherings.

Most of these gatherings are built on Christian traditions, but religions that worship several deities, or none, have their own parallel versions. And some groups are so spiritually eclectic they attract Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants all at once.

While there is a general sense that this is a burgeoning subculture, the number of people involved has yet to be tallied. But a growing body of research suggests that the movement is widespread.

* A recent Gallup International Institute poll shows that 62% of church attenders now meet in small groups where prayer is part if not all of the program. Most are born-again Christians, Protestants or Roman Catholics.

* A national survey conducted every year since 1981 by the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago University shows that 56% of adults now pray at least once each day. And 33% belong to a church-related group.

* In the past two years, some 20 new books about prayer have launched onto at least one bestseller list, regional or national. "It used to be that books on prayer moved through religious conferences or church stores," says Phyllis Tickle, religion editor at large for Publisher's Weekly. "Now they get significant attention in the world of general retailing." Increasingly, the most successful books offer practical instruction, not theory.

Extroverts can join the snow-blowers brigade in Cincinnati, a new twist on the ancient tradition of church processions. "We go out in teams of two or three to serve the community," says Pastor Steve Sjogren of the Vineyard Community Church, where "walking prayer" groups also clean gas station toilets in summer. "We pray before, during and after the work." As for the free service, Sjogren explains that it's "a way of showing people what if feels like to be loved by God."

Cerebral types might prefer a group like the one that meets at St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in San Marino. Five women gather for an hour each week in silent contemplation, shared reflections and Scripture reading. "It brings us closer to God and expands our spirituality," says Jacqueline Miles, a psychologist.

Connecting with the transcendent or surprising strangers with acts of kindness are what draw prayer groups together in good times. Just as often, they form around a crisis.

"People were getting robbed, pistol-whipped, Maced," says Lois Lesure, a Los Angeles postal worker. "There were so many assaults, the carriers needed to petition a higher power." And so they did, at the Greenmead Station in Los Angeles. For four years a small group of mail carriers prayed together for protection before they went out on their route.

Calling on a higher power was only part of the plan. They also got help from the police and the community. "The combination was very effective," Lesure says. Eventually, some members transferred to other stations and the group disbanded a few months ago. "We believe our prayers were answered and we have so much work to do we put group prayer to the side," explains Jacquelyn Scorza. "But our individual prayers continue."

For most social activists, prayer is not enough. "Prayer and action go hand in hand," says Brian Kennedy, the Los Angeles area director of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which visits those in prison and helps ex-prisoners. "I can pray for a job all day long, but if I don't go look for one it's not going to happen." Kennedy oversees a team of 100 volunteers who stop every day at noon to pray for ex-prisoners.

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