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.”