By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008
The price of regular at a Shell gas station in Petworth gleamed defiantly in the midday sun: $3.91 a gallon.
But unlike the customers rolling up to the station's pumps this week, resigned to the fact that their wallets were about to take a beating, Rocky Twyman and company had a plan to bring that number tumbling down.
They would ask God to do it.
"Our pockets are empty, but we're going to hold on to God!" Twyman, a community organizer from Rockville, said as he and seven other people formed a semicircle, held hands and sang, pleading for divine intervention to lower fuel prices.
It was the latest demonstration by Twyman's movement, Pray at the Pump, which began in April. Since then, he has held group prayers at gas stations as far away as San Francisco, garnering international media attention and even claiming success in at least a couple of cases.
Some would say the proof of whether Twyman has the ear of the Almighty is in the result. On the first day of the movement, April 23, the national average price of a gallon of unleaded was $3.53, according to AAA. As of yesterday, it was $3.96.
But Twyman said true faith does not demand instant gratification, and he plans to keep his pump-side prayers going "until God tells us to stop."
"This whole thing is a wake-up call from God to Americans, because we idolize men so much," said Twyman, 59, a public relations consultant and Seventh-day Adventist who believes that high gas prices are a sign of the apocalypse drawing nigh. "I think through this crisis, God is trying to call us back to depend on Him more."
For the past several weeks, Twyman has assembled a group at a soup kitchen in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington where he volunteers. They have driven to a gas station, locked hands, said a prayer, purchased gas and sung the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," with an added verse: "We'll have lower gas prices."
Reactions, and results, have been mixed.
After he gave an interview to a Tampa radio station, the station received calls from listeners saying the price at their pumps had dropped. (According to AAA's Fuel Price Finder, regular gas at Tampa area stations averaged $3.89 a gallon yesterday, up from $3.59 a month ago).
Last week, as one of the demonstrations was winding down, an angry gas station manager in Petworth chased them from the property, Twyman said, annoyed that the activists were hampering business.
On Thursday, onlookers included the puzzled, the amused, the inspired and the skeptical.
Sylvester Shorter, 61, of Southeast Washington was pumping $20 worth of regular as the group sang.
"They're praying," he said dismissively. "Do I still have to pay $20?"
A public relations consultant, Twyman is experienced at garnering publicity and has staged campaigns over the years for various causes, from tsunami relief to bone marrow donations for minorities.
In 2005, he began a movement to get Oprah Winfrey the Nobel Peace Prize. (She did not win.) Last year, he led prayers for rain in drought-afflicted Georgia. (Rain did eventually fall.)
To some observers, the idea of praying in public for cheaper gas is "uniquely American."
Johannes Wiebus, an independent producer who recently filmed one of Twyman's demonstrations for a German TV network, said: "You've got this issue -- high gas prices -- which is an economic issue, a political issue, but no one in their wildest dreams would make it a religious issue in Germany."
But to some local drivers feeling the pinch, frustrated at the inability of politicians to solve the problem, the question isn't, "Why pray for cheap gas?" It's, "Why not?"
"I think it's a wonderful thing," said Mirrine Thorne of Northwest Washington, who pulled in to gas up her Chevy Impala as Twyman's group prayed. Thorne, a mother of four, said gas prices have limited the activities she can do with her kids on the weekends.
"Nobody else is doing anything," she said. "God is going to do something."
After a few minutes of song and appeals to customers to join the movement, Twyman and his group began their departure, their hope and faith replenished.
The price of regular? $3.91.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.