Michigan ‘Prayer Station’ volunteers are doubting Thomases, politically


Brenda Hutchinson and Cathy Eddy wait to share prayers with people in need at the city hall in Warren, MI. Hutchinson said that traffic varies and that she has prayed with anywhere from 2-20 people in one day. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

It is not easy to be God’s receptionists, here in the auto-plant suburbs of Detroit.

Four days a week in Warren — a city that has about 4,000 foreclosed homes and an unusual openness to mingling church and state — a small group of Christian volunteers sets up a folding table at City Hall. “Prayer Station,” their sign says.

People stop to look. Stare. Then walk over.

For three hard years, these volunteers have talked to desperate Michiganders who wanted to talk to God.

They have prayed with strangers about pregnancies, cancer and wayward children. People who lost their homes. People who lost their jobs. And, sometimes, people who were so lost that they forgot what prayer is for: “Somebody wanted his wife to die,” one volunteer remembered. “She was getting on his nerves.”

Recently, the two front-runners in the Republican presidential race campaigned in this state with messages aimed at people just like these volunteers. One candidate told them that their religion is under attack. The other said Michigan’s brightening economy is still in danger. Each said he is the only one who could fix it.

But there was skepticism at the prayer station.

After three years of holding hands with the despairing, some volunteers had their doubts about any one man’s promises to save the state.

“I don’t like nobody, as it stands now,” Brenda Hutchinson, a retiree, said during one morning shift at the table. She was dubious about former senator Rick Santorum’s pledges to rebuild the American family: “That’s bull. But that’s new.” And she was dismissive of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s warnings of a possible setback for the state’s economy.

“Is he saying that in Michigan? Before he was even old enough to [be potty-trained], people were worried about” that here, she said. People here are too scared to be scared more, she said: “ ‘You’re going to lose your jobs!’ Really? Ya think?”

The story of the prayer station began on a sidewalk in the summer of 2008. At that point, car sales were plunging and two automakers that employ thousands in Warren — General Motors and Chrysler — were sliding toward bankruptcy and federal bailouts. Foreclosures in town almost doubled that year.

“Sometimes, people don’t know that they need something,” said Darius Walden, senior pastor at the Tabernacle Church, a Church of God congregation that runs the station. “This is a visible means of offering hope.”

That winter, the station moved to a spot inside the glass-enclosed atrium of City Hall. The church attributes this to God’s providence. It was also, certainly, because of Warren’s unusual mayor.

James R. Fouts is a political independent known for pushing the envelope of municipal power. He told his appointees that they had to drive an American car to keep their jobs. And not just any American car. Only two of the Big Three automakers have plants in his city.

“If you want to go far in Warren,” he said, “you won’t buy a Ford.”

Fouts, a former schoolteacher who idolizes Frank Sinatra and Harry S. Truman, says that any other religious group would be welcome to set up its own prayer station in the same place. “Most people can’t afford to go to a counselor today,” he said. “That costs money. And the prayer station is free.”

There’s nothing else quite like it in the country, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, at the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. She did not mean that in a good way.

“This is turning a city hall into a place of worship,” Gaylor said. Her foundation would like to fight this — maybe try to set up a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer Station” in the same atrium. But that has to wait. The foundation is already suing Fouts over something else: a Nativity scene that was set up at City Hall last Christmas.

On a typical day, the prayer station has two volunteers on the morning shift, 9 a.m. to noon, and two on the afternoon shift, until 3 p.m. Sometimes, people walk up timidly and ask, “How does this work?”

Other times, they rush up, already crying.

“I need someone to pray for me real bad,” a woman said recently, hiding red eyes behind sunglasses. “My boss is trying to get me fired. . . . I’m about to fall apart.”

The two volunteers joined hands and bowed their heads. “You’ve got the victory, Lord,” said Jennifer Maricco, 25, as she asked God to protect the woman’s job. “Jesus,” murmured Joann Cone, 68, the other volunteer. Snooooort, went the woman, now without a free hand to dab her running nose.

They said “Amen,” and gave her a hug and a tissue. The woman left, looking a little more confident. The volunteers wrote down her first name and the word “job.” The request would be prayed over again at the church, in a regular ritual on Mondays.

The volunteers are largely retired people who have learned the best practices for taking God’s messages. When people want to pray for a job, ask questions. Do they want to be nurses? To work on an assembly line? Have they also looked at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s?

“God wants details, we say,” said Pat Buszczak, 77, a retired tire-company employee from Warren, which Forbes Magazine has rated 10th on its list of America’s Most Miserable cities.

The volunteers have learned how to handle oddball requests, translating them into something a little more prayerful. Somebody asked for a winning lottery ticket. God, show this man how to deal with his finances. Somebody, on the way into the courthouse next door, asked to stay out of jail. God, grant the judge wisdom.

And for the man who wanted his wife to die? “It’s expensive to bury people,” Hutchinson said she told him. “So let’s just pray for the situation” to improve.

One thing people don’t ask to pray about much is politics — even with Michigan’s Republican presidential primary coming up on Tuesday. If they did, the volunteers wouldn’t presume to tell people how God wants them to vote.

But privately, they have their opinions.

“For me personally, I’m going to go the way of Santorum,” Cone said, in between prayer requests. If he could manage to make a difference on issues such as abortion and out-of-wedlock births, “it would be a better way to live,” she said.

But Yvonne Warren, 83, said she is still skeptical of both front-runners, saying they haven’t given enough details about how they would save Michigan — or protect religion.

“I don’t like Romney so well. But I’ve been listening to him maybe a little bit more,” she said. “He doesn’t give specifics. I can talk the way he does.”

In addition, the candidates’ grave warnings about the economy and religion can also conflict with the mood here — where some see small reasons for optimism. Foreclosures in Warren dropped a little last year. The GM transmission plant is planning to add 418 workers. At the Prayer Station, one longtime customer returned recently with a bunch of roses: He had found a job at long last.

Still, despite the good news, prayers are always coming in.

“I am looking for a place to stay. I’ve got to move out of my sister’s place by the end of the month,” Gail Washington, 51, of Detroit said when she approached the table recently. “And also, a better employment.”

They grasped hands and bowed heads. “Help her as she searches for another, better job,” said Olga Smoot, 75, a retired clerical worker.

“A promotion!” interjected Glenda Robinson, 59, another volunteer.

Washington walked away feeling better. She worked in food service but wanted to start out on her own as a cake decorator. To her, Detroit looked like it was slowly getting better: “We just gotta keep the faith.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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