It’s already about twelve minutes after the time we’re supposed to get started when I step out onto the porch. “Five minutes and we’re going to get started, y’all,” I say, knowing full well that I probably mean more like eight or nine minutes.
There are cigarettes and cups of coffee to finish and at least one more conversation waiting for most of us. Answered by a chorus of nods and waves, I head back inside to pick up the remnants of a conversation with a sister who’s still learning who we are and why she’s a blessing by her presence.
Learning Unceasing Prayer
Once again, we will not start our community prayers on time, but it’s hard to be on time when you’re trying to learn to pray without ceasing. Some of us gather on the porch, while others wander the garden, inspecting the tomatoes and eggplants in particular. Some of us have already found a seat in one of the house’s living rooms turned community prayer spaces. Depending on where we’re sitting or standing, we might be having a boisterous conversation or keeping silence and searching for the whisper of the Holy Spirit.
We’re learning to see the unceasing praying in those moments when we’ve already started our prayers, even though we’ve not passed anything out and the only songs we’ve been singing are badly belted top forty hits or classic rock bass lines.
When the last car packed full of brothers and sisters from another neighborhood pulls around the corner, the folks on the porch and in the garden start making their way to our makeshift chapel. What makes it a chapel and not a high-ceilinged living room is the countless prayers it has heard and our agreement one with another that this is a place we all go to meet God.
Welcoming Jesus (Who’s Already There)
As we gather, each of us finds a seat or a spot on the floor around a beat up black coffee table. With everyone gathered, the children help to cover our altar with an old green curtain spotted with candle wax, but no less sacred for the mess. We place the steadily shrinking, white, pillar candle we use for our Christ candle in the middle of our table-turned-altar. Then we add our prayer book, a Bible, and maybe our plate and cup before our youngest brothers and sisters find a lap to sit on somewhere in the room. We light the candle and take a moment or two of silence, or as close as we can get to silence, to calm our minds and welcome Jesus into our makeshift place of prayer. Of course, he’s been there since long before the click of a stick lighter.
So, we sing, and we pray. We gather up the prayers of the people packed into that room where the fan has to stay on. Some of our prayers are for loved ones while others are for us. Many of the prayers will be for sisters and brothers struggling with homelessness, hunger, addiction, and deprivation. We lift up a brother, whose days remaining in jail will be counted and recounted like prayer beads each time we gather together. We clap, hoot, and holler for a sister who announces, with praise to God, that she’s been clean for eight days and this time she intends to stick with it. Some of the loudest “amens” come from our leaders who are also recovering, but the loudest comes from her husband who has been bragging about her for at least six of those eight days and is quietly celebrating nearly nine months of his recovery. We pray for people who have recently started sleeping on the streets, some of them in the room with us while also praying for the brothers and sisters sleeping in our hospitality rooms. We pray for peace with our enemies and for peace with those who might name us as enemies. We pray for justice and mercy to be so wrapped up with each other in our world that we can’t tell which is which.
We pray for God to turn our every breath and action into a prayer, proclaiming God’s greatness and worthiness. We want to pray unceasingly and we no other way to do it than to turn the living of our lives into a prayer.
Prayer and Making Room for Others
Praying together has taught us to slow down to make room for people to offer worship to God even in ways in which they are not strong by the world’s standards. Sometimes, we’ve learned that prayer sounds like a brother reading scripture haltingly but lovingly. After we read the scripture together, we interpret it and often find that the Spirit’s voice waits for us in unexpected places. We have to slow down, so we can listen carefully for God who may choose to speak to us in the happy tears of a brother no longer homeless or in the hard-won experience of a sister with an empty refrigerator. God doesn’t always show up in the same place, but God does always show up.
Sometimes, we pass the plate and cup to remind each other that all of us are welcome at God’s table and God has died for all of us, regardless of what the world says about our deficits and gifts. Sometimes, we dip our fingers in water to remember the vows we made to follow Jesus when we were baptized into his death. Sometimes, we pray over each other with oil on our fingers and foreheads, asking God for healing of so many different kinds: physical health, recovery from addiction, mental health, spiritual peace, and as many other types of healing as there are ways of being broken.
We close with a blessing designed for all of us to pronounce. With hands joined and looking from face to face, we pronounce a blessing over those God has put in our lives to teach us to pray and follow. But, it will be another thirty or forty minutes most weeks before everybody has finally made their way home by foot, bicycle, or packed into a shared car.
Our prayer continues in a dozen tiny ways: making a pot of coffee, picking up cooling conversations where we left them, catching a few more minutes of daylight on our skin while talking about bad days and hard weeks, drawing on the front wall with sidewalk chalk, talking a little more about what that scripture might have meant, and cutting cake to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, or days, weeks, months, or years of recovery.
We may not bow our heads and we may not fold our hands, but all these little things are just as much our prayers to our loving, gracious, and hospitable God who knows you can’t be late to prayer if you’re learning to pray with your life.
Joshua is a storyteller and a leader and member of Grace and Main Fellowship, an intentional Christian community devoted to hospitality, prayer, and discipleship. He is the executive director of Third Chance Ministries, which identifies, develops, and supports missionaries who gather together and nurture intentional Christian communities of hospitality and service in areas of profound need.