[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Prayer Walk: Praying for the Heart of Hamilton
This Saturday from 12:00pm to 2:00pm, you’re invited to walk through the city to pray for renewal, reconciliation, and restoration to the glory of God. Folks will gather at Offerings Prayer Ministry on Main Street, go out in pairs or small groups to walk and pray, and then meet back up at Offerings to discuss the experience. For more details, check out the Facebook Event page.
Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can serve our city, and it’s one of our core values. We’ve taught on prayer, its power, and specifically how you can be praying for one another, The Village, and all the people of Hamilton. If you’re available for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon, grab a friend or group of friends and head into the city to pray for God to move among his people.
I received this invitation in March 2011, the feature in an email newsletter. The invitation’s source was The Village, an evangelical church that began in October 2009 in the small post-industrial city of Hamilton, Ohio. The Village is a theologically conservative, non-denominational congregation affiliated with the church planting network, Acts 29. In step with the majority of the nearly 400 other Acts 29 churches, The Village seeks to be “city-focused.” Elsewhere, I have explored the emerging pattern of re-urbanizing evangelicals who are moving against the grain of 20th century evangelical suburbanization. One of The Village’s founding documents was their “Vision for the City of Hamilton” statement, which includes this imperative: “Love for the City. We want the residents of Hamilton to love this city, and we want the residents of other cities to know we love the city. This means that we’ll take on the burdens of the city and work for its good, because what’s good for Hamilton is good for us.”
As the newsletter invitation suggests, one strategy for loving Hamilton and taking on its burdens is to organize regular prayer walks throughout the city. In a secular liberal frame, this might not seem like any kind of actual strategy. As Kevin O’Neill observed of neo-Pentecostal citizenship in Guatemala, disappointment lurks when secularized expectations size up religious projects. Here, what can prayer do to combat the ravages of de-industrialization and urban disinvestment? Obviously, The Village operates in a different frame, one in which prayer is transformative. But, the power attributed to prayer is not the only thing to observe. We must also account for the kind of prayer we are dealing with. Namely, walking prayer is the kind of prayer that makes little sense outside of its materiality, and exemplifies the need to theorize prayer outside of “a history of abstraction.”
To be clear, re-urbanizing evangelicals are not the first Christians to perform prayer walks. Holy Land pilgrims traverse biblical landscapes, retracing iconic and inspired footsteps. Catholic communities find creative ritual forms for remembering the Stations of the Cross. And charismatic missionaries walk village sites as a form of “spiritual warfare,” praying over locations where they believe the demonic reigns. The walking prayer of re-urbanizing evangelicals, like these other expressions, fosters an approach to prayer that is definitively emplaced and thoroughly embodied. It is concrete, not abstract; asphalt, not mere interiority.
Numerous tactile and sensorial elements are vital to evangelical walking prayer. The hands of pray-ers interlock with one another—trading oils and sweat—as they pray over selected street corners; perhaps the site of a car accident, some violent crime, a future business, an old apartment, or a perfect vantage point for viewing the city. Pray-ers lay hands on stone and brick buildings, to bless a food market or seek healing for a dying retail store. When churches like The Village do walking prayer, they are cast into the sensory overload that is city life. Hustle, bustle, frenzy, squealing brakes, honking horns, and passersby clash with our most readily available images and associations for prayer, in which piety and transcendence are achieved via silence. If the prayer shawls documented by Anderson Blanton are worn to “prevent distraction,” urban evangelical walking prayer seeks and confronts distraction.
Understanding walking prayer requires full attentiveness to embodiment. Shoes absorb the repeated shocks of soles hitting the ground; lifting, only to hit again. Feet and legs tire as prayed words connect distant city spaces. Pray-ers are exposed to the elements. As evangelicals “lift up” locales, they are surrounded by warmth or by chill, they shiver in brisk wind or they bask in cozy sunlight. If we are working with a model of prayer in which the praying person is severed from their physical setting because they have entered some altered state of consciousness, we are poised to miss how being-in-the-elements might actually help constitute walking prayer. We can further appreciate this embodied nature if we also attend to walking as a specific kind of movement. Walking is not jogging or running (another option, I suppose, marathon prayer). It is slow, deliberate, self-determined. A walk is not, if we are being precise, an amble, a saunter, a meander, or a stroll. The latter connote an aimlessness and leisureliness that walking lacks. Walking, of course, is also not standing still. This, too, violates our expectations for how middle-class evangelicals pray together: shouldn’t they be in a living room somewhere? Movement typifies walking prayer, and by extension allows re-urbanized evangelicals to restate to themselves that their faith is not of the suburban kind.
Theorizing the materiality of prayer is not limited to the making, use, and exchange of objects. Materiality also gathers around themes of emplacement and embodiment. Walking prayer nicely captures these material elements and, in addition to the fact that it is a rapidly increasing practice among American Christians, deserves systematic ethnographic attention. I encountered The Village and other re-urbanizing evangelicals doing walking prayer late in a fieldwork project, and was unable to fully explore this phenomenon. But, such an inquiry would be most welcome in the comparative study of evangelicalism, Christianity, and prayer as a form of religious practice. Two sets of questions might provide a starting place. First, what cultural work does walking prayer perform inside a local prayer economy? Certainly, prayer happens in a variety of ways among members of The Village. But what do these different performative contexts have to do with each other, and what, if any, is the distinctive contribution of walking prayer to the ideals of a prayer-full life? Second, how is walking prayer integrated into community aspirations and strategies? In the case of re-urbanizing evangelicals, walking prayer fosters a localized sense of place and bolsters the broader project of urban redemption. In this way, walking prayer—in all its materiality—is central to who these evangelicals are, and hope to be.