I can still hear their earnest prayers inside one small storefront church or another, rising above a rickety space heater. The church mothers kneel in a circle, over folding chairs.
They groan at times. Speak in a language I cannot understand. Most often, they cry during these early morning meetings held faithfully for years every Tuesday and Friday. They pray for husbands. For wayward sons and daughters and grandchildren. That the Lord would bless, heal and save their families.
There is no organ. No piano. Only the sweet harmony of a dozen or so church mothers, blending in half-sung, unscripted prayers that spring from their hearts and that still stir my soul.
As a young man — facing my own life’s storm and in need of an anchor — I chose to tag along with my grandmother Florence G. Hagler.
Besides Grandmother, there was Mother Lola Vaughns, my Aunt Mary, Aunt Scope, Missionary Hawkins, Sister Shumate and Sister Scott, Sister Stripling, and Sister Crain whose voice was angelic, yet fiery and thunderous.
There were a few others. Sometimes less. Always the faithful core, among them Grandmother, they began at the top of the hour.
“Yes, Lord,” they sang a cappella before launching into thanksgiving. “Yes, Lord . . . ”
Their prayers progressed toward a crescendo of indiscernible cries that sometimes, honestly, scared the bejesus out of me. I later came to see this as simply the outpouring of their deepest hurts, fears and troubles in a place where they found intimacy, comfort, fellowship and a connection to a higher power.
I don’t remember exactly how the morning prayers came about. I do know that they were an expression of the mothers’ belief that they needed daily to acknowledge their Creator and also invite Him to lead them in all their affairs.
They believed prayer was as vital as the sun is to earth. So they basked in it, made it their main course rather than a side dish or an appetizer. “No prayer, no power,” they used to say. “Much prayer, much power.”
Each mother took turns leading the group. The leader’s voice eventually trailed off and another’s spontaneously piped up to take the lead.
Prayer. It is, for me, not a negligible thing.
But I sometimes have neglected it in a world saturated with humanism, secularism, skepticism and often a disdain for spiritual things. A world where matters of prayer and faith are dismissed as rubbish and anti-intellectual gobbledygook.
Except I know better. That prayer and faith matter. That they are not about religion but relationship.
Still, I sometimes have neglected my prayer life amid the busyness that consumes the days of our lives. And yet, in my exhaustion and dismay, amid my own worries, troubles and fears that sometimes rouse me from sleep late at night, I remember to return to prayer, which helps to balance me.
I remember how, once upon a time, prayer was what we did before we ate, before we went to school or work, before we went to bed at night or climbed out of bed in the morning. Reminded that it is not the absence of prayer in our schools that ails us but the absence of prayer in our homes and even some of our churches.
It is a truth that resounds as loudly as the prayers of the dear church mothers that even now, many years later, still move me to tears, to prayer.