Georie Bryant and Reynolds Chapman on Prayer Walks
Sometimes Christians worry that praying in public will be embarrassing or offensive. Four congregations in Durham, North Carolina, organized a prayer walk that connected with neighbors.
Reynolds Chapman, executive director, and Georie Bryant, church mobilization officer, work for DurhamCares in Durham, North Carolina. The mission of DurhamCares is to foster collaboration, develop leaders, and educate residents to care for their neighbors in holistic ways. In this edited conversation, Bryant and Chapman talk about the prayer walk that four neighborhood congregations did during their 2018 Vital Worship Grant.
Why and how does DurhamCares work to connect churches?
RC: DurhamCares mobilizes churches to care for their neighbors. It was birthed out of a Bible study on Luke 10:25–37, the story of the Good Samaritan. In the passage, Jesus connects loving God to loving our neighbors. The one who is a neighbor is the one who shows mercy, rather than the clerical “worship leaders” who walk by the injured man. At DurhamCares, we recognize that genuine worship and love for God must overflow as love for neighbors, expressed in tangible acts of care and support.
GB: My job as church mobilizer is to engage churches to become partners with community members and stakeholders. The first step is to be in relationship with pastors in specific neighborhoods, such as East Durham. Besides hosting quarterly prayer breakfasts, we encourage pastors to talk with other pastors, maybe grabbing coffee or tea together. Lay people can get involved too, like by attending prayer meetings or helping with projects at other churches.
What’s a quick way to describe your 2018 Vital Worship Grant project?
GB: Four congregations—Baptist, Church of God, independent, and Pentecostal—learned, reflected, and planned worship together. We met monthly. We learned from church mothers, neighborhood leaders, and some outside experts about anti-racism, asset-based community development, incarnational worship, and more. One month we’d learn, and the next month we met to reflect on what we learned. We planned and led two collaborative worship services and one prayer walk. All took place on Saturdays in neighborhood parks.
RC: DurhamCares, which led the grant project, is a nonprofit that works with churches but is not a congregation itself. People tell us that it’s helpful to have a group like DurhamCares to steer the process of building relationships among churches. This helps churches feel less territorial. Our grant project, the East Durham Vital Worship Movement (EDVWM), helped us see how worship influences, and is influenced by, the form and manner in which a church engages with its community. People from the four congregations decided what to learn about and how to plan collaborative worship. Through this project, we have learned that to truly help churches engage well in their communities, we must address their worship.
Why did your church partners plan a prayer walk?
RC: The prayer walk came out of realizing that things we were trying to present through a worship service were things we were struggling with as a group. All our pastors work other full-time jobs and have demands from their small churches. Scheduling and attendance were therefore difficult. By the time we began planning our second worship event, there were brooding tensions between excellence and relationship as values. So it was more fruitful to plan a prayer walk. We learned it is okay to slow down to address conflict. Slowing down helped us plan our final collaborative worship event, which included music, prayer, a skit, free food, a bounce house, arts and crafts, and booths from neighborhood organizations.
What have you discovered about praying in public?
"It’s interesting that I haven’t yet met a person
experiencing addiction or homelessness
who will turn down an offer of prayer."
GB: I started off the second collaborative worship service with prayer. I’m not a traditional pray-er. I don’t ask people to quiet themselves for a prayer. I just start talking with God. Even people on the sidewalk stopped and paid attention. We sometimes think of the world as anti-Christian, anti-reverence. But in this community, people respond when they hear a voice interceding. It’s interesting that I haven’t yet met a person experiencing addiction or homelessness who will turn down an offer of prayer.
What did you do on the prayer walk?
GB: We mainly walked through Long Meadow Park and nearby streets We talked with people who gather in the park after they have to leave homeless shelters each morning. I and another pastor asked whether any of them wanted prayer. Most said things like “Pray whatever you want. I can take any kind of prayer.” One man said, “Look around. Do you really need me to tell you what to pray about?”
Who else did you pray for on the prayer walk?
GB: Some police officers had showed up at our first worship event, and we welcomed them. There’s a police station across from the park, so we went there. No officers were outdoors then, but we stopped outside the station and prayed. We prayed for better relations with the police and new and old residents.
Can you say more about praying for better relations?
GB: All around the park is an African American community that’s rapidly gentrifying. We prayed for people who are being displaced. We asked, “What does the Lord have to say about this circumstance? Displacement happens in the Bible too.”
We also asked God to give everyone a keen sense of discernment and open hearts so as not to succumb to biases about people we see walking down the street. Sometimes people see everyone different from them as a threat.
Given that conflict prevented churches from planning one of the worship services, what was their relationship status when the grant year ended?
RC: Despite obstacles, it was a huge lift in itself for all the volunteers to experience working together. The churches learned that planning is not a given. Much can be learned about character through how we relate to each other through planning. When we faced our biggest challenge, we all asked, “Why are we still doing this? Why does church unity and collaborative worship matter?”
We agreed that having hard conversations is worth it because that’s how we start seeing and using people’s gifts in worship and ministry. Grant participants shared their learning at a DurhamCares quarterly prayer breakfast. Lots of attendees asked questions about how they could get more involved in place-based worship and outreach.
How have grant partners connected since the project year ended?
GB: Since the grant year ended, project participants have gone to each other’s prayer meetings and community events. They’ve recruited other neighborhood pastors to attend DurhamCares’s quarterly prayer breakfasts. As a result, more people have gotten involved in citywide efforts against gun violence. One pastor wants to organize a large worship event for historically black churches.
RC: DurhamCares offers the Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. Participants visit sites and hear from local leaders to learn a more complete story about life in Durham. It draws mostly Durham residents but has also drawn people from Washington, DC; Richmond, Virginia; and San Antonio, Texas. Now the four grant project churches want to do the pilgrimage together. Getting a deeper sense of our common history will help neighborhood congregations see how they fit into God’s story.
Register for one of DurhamCares’s signature events, the Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. Watch a video about the pilgrimage (3:07) or read how Reynolds Chapman described the Durham pilgrimage in the Summer 2017 issue of Church Health Reader. Neighborhood Liturgy has examples of place-specific prayer walks, including combining prayer walks with the Lord’s Prayer.