By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 6:05 PM
Howard Green has made the five-hour trek by car from his retirement home in a small North Carolina town to the Washington area at least twice a month for more than a decade with one goal in mind: praying.
The retired National Naval Medical Center warehouse worker has battled traffic jams and other obstacles to make the trip. So the snow and ice that dotted the roads and slowed Green's journey one recent Friday evening didn't deter him a bit.
Nor was he discouraged when he arrived at the Temple Hills church where he was to meet fellow members of his prayer group and found no heat or electricity. Or anyone there.
"I am never late," said Green, 74. "I usually call the Prayer Union to order."
The Prayer Union is a group of about 100 people - mostly men, but some women and children, too - devoted to keeping prayer alive. Green, who has been a member for 40 years, is currently the group's president.
For about 110 years, preachers, deacons and ordinary men and women from 28 congregations across the area have come together at different locations on the second and fourth Fridays of each month and every federal holiday for prayer.
James A. Roberts, chairman of the deacon board of the Shining Star Freewill Baptist Church in Seat Pleasant, serves as secretary of the group. He said the union is guided by the verse James 5:16 in the New Testament: "Confess your faults one to another and pray one for another that ye may be healed."
No one is certain when the Prayer Union began, but they know for certain that it got its start on a Saturday night.
Green, who lived in Northeast Washington for more than 40 years, said sometime around 1900, George Casey, a deacon with Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest, began gathering with fellow church members.
"Groups of people would go around from place to place," said Green, who remains a deacon at Faith Temple No. 2 in Capitol Heights. "They called it 'the Saturday night host.' "
At some point, the Rev. Lemon White, pastor of Mount Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, organized the group into the Prayer Union Meeting of Washington, D.C., and Vicinity.
Green said that to have deacons lead prayer services has long been part of the African American church tradition. Worship services would begin with a cappella singing, and then a line of deacons would kneel in front of the pulpit and offer up prayers.
Green spent more than an hour on the last Friday of January trying to find his prayer group, which had moved to a church in Lanham. Once there, the first thing he did was pray.
"Thank you!" Green roared. "Thank you, Jesus. Thou who know all about us, help us. Be what you would have us to be. Be with us, guide us, in your will and your way."
Green said that when he joined the group in 1962, prayer meetings often lasted up to four hours. Today, meetings often last less than two.
"In the old days, services could go past midnight. We had to cut the service off because so many people wanted to pray," Green said. "But now we have to tell people to continue in prayer."
As Green prayed, he used a white handkerchief to wipe sweat from his face. His raspy voice swelled into a roar, and soon he was answered by a chorus of shouts and amens.
Daniel Luckett took up the charge and offered his own prayers.
The 64-year-old Vietnam veteran thanked God sparing him when a bullet passed in front of his face. He offered up prayers to his daughter, who died of complications with Down syndrome when she was 16.
"I was content because I know she went to Heaven," Luckett, a retiree who is a deacon at Uplift Baptist Church in Landover, said.
The Seat Pleasant resident said he loves gathering with others from different churches for the Prayer Union, but he worries that the act of prayer is not as cherished as it once was.
"Prayer meeting is the smallest meeting in the church," Luckett said.
"People say, 'Pray for me.' But they don't pray openly."
So the Prayer Union does it for them - praying at funerals, church services and anywhere else they're needed.
After their most recent service, the group took up a collection and came up with more than $200 to present to the wife of the pastor of Total Kingdom Building Ministries in Lanham, where the union had to move its meeting at the last moment.
At 9 p.m., less than an hour after he arrived, Green got back into his car and headed south on the Capital Beltway. He arrived back in North Carolina about 1:30 a.m., tired but confirmed in his decision to keep up the traveling back and forth.
"Our purpose is to keep prayer alive," Green said. "This is my life."