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Two years ago, just before Good Friday, Graham Fisher walked the six-kilometre boundary of his church parish in Toronto, praying as he went. He started at 6 a.m., walked and prayed along the boundary seven times, and finally finished near the end of the afternoon.
“I was on crutches for a couple of days” afterward, admits the parishioner at St. Saviour’s Anglican Church, then 44. But the pain and blisters didn’t stop him.
In the two years since, people at St. Saviour’s have systematically walked every block of the parish, praying for each home and business. They’re now on their second time through. In the process they have become great friends with the folks at nearby Calvary Baptist, sharing prayer requests and social events.
Twenty years ago, many evangelicals would have raised their eyebrows at the St. Saviour’s prayer plan—but no longer. Christians of all denominations and in every part of the country from Bonavista to Vancouver Island are coming out of the prayer closet. Last summer a team of 50 to 60 people prayer walked the perimeter of Prince Edward Island. In London, Ont., groups have twice walked and prayed over every inch of the city of 300,000.
What exactly is prayer walking? Although it varies in form from a casual walk around the block by one or two people to a well mapped-out plan by a large group, those who do it generally follow Graham Kendrick’s definition that prayer walking is “praying on site with insight.” Kendrick is a co-founder of the March for Jesus movement and is based in the United Kingdom.
Prayer walking is a way for Christians “to be on the scene without making a scene—in the public square without being in the public eye,” Kendrick writes on his website.
“It literally takes [prayer] out of our church buildings and out of our homes and out into our community,” explains Glenna Heidt, prayer consultant for the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists.
Some have stumbled onto prayer walking quite by accident. Major Calvin Fudge, regional prayer coordinator for the Salvation Army in Newfoundland, has been walking and praying since 1986. “I never read anything about it,” he says. “I never heard anyone mention it. I was out walking and the Lord laid on my heart to start praying for people.” He didn’t even tell anyone about his prayers. It wasn’t until later that he heard of prayer walking as an official movement.
“It’s something I have done almost all my Christian life,” says Silas Mugambe, a pastor in Burnaby, B.C. As a new Christian in Uganda 25 years ago, “this was something we did. We would walk and pray into areas.” When he came to Canada a decade ago to attend Regent College, he was surprised to find people just discovering prayer walking. “It seems it was something new on the block.”
In fact, it’s not new at all. In various forms, prayerful processions have been going on for centuries. Some rural Anglican parishes in England still follow the old tradition of “beating the bounds” when they walk to the perimeter of the parish during Rogation Days in the week before Ascension Day (see sidebar: A Short History).
The movement that has grown across Canada in the last decade or so is influenced by C. Peter Wagner, John Dawson and George Otis Jr. in the United States, and by Graham Kendrick and Steve Hawthorne in Britain. Some of the more intentional forms involve mapping out territory, researching history, claiming an area for God, and chasing out demons. The more relaxed kinds simply seek to bring a blessing on the neighbourhood or the city, as exhorted by Jeremiah (29:7).
No matter how they do it, those who practise prayer walking agree on its benefits: a keener sensitivity to the neighbourhood and its needs; more openness in the community to spiritual things; and stronger church unity.
When Paul and Kathy Francis were beginning a Mennonite Brethren church plant in Halifax, they prayer walked the neighbourhood, including around an elementary school, where they prayed for the teachers and students. Before long, they started an after-school club with 60 children attending. They also held a kids’ carnival that drew 150 to 200 children. “We believe it’s not our programming but our prayer,” says Paul Francis.
A similar scenario unfolded in London, Ont., where, after a citywide prayer walk in the mid-1990s, folks at Faith Tabernacle, an Independent Assemblies of God church, followed up with a prayer focus on their neighbourhood. That led them to start up a school gym program and then a craft program. “Within three weeks we had 100 kids,” says organizer Ron Mills, a layperson and board member of Christ For Your City.
Prayer walking makes a difference
In Toronto, St. Saviour’s youth pastor Jeff Cantelon found an open door at the local high school shortly after the church prayer walked that block. “We’re convinced it was a result of the prayer,” says rector Brian Parker.
In London, over a period of months, “we saw the crime stats go down,” says Mills. “It was an interesting phenomenon to observe. I don’t think it was a coincidence.”
In Burnaby, B.C., Mugambe and Dave Carson planted First Century Church in an area dense with high-rise apartment buildings. “We wondered how we’d get into people’s homes,” says Mugambe. “We kept praying and walking around. It’s been amazing what has happened. We’re able to get into what seemed like fortified cities.” God has opened the doors, he says. “I personally don’t think there’s any explanation except prayer.”
Prayer walking “has a power to help people to be more open to the gospel when you’re talking to them and sharing with them,” says Fudge. “We’ve seen Bible studies begun in the neighbourhoods [where prayer walking takes place],” adds Heidt. “We’ve seen church plants. Only heaven knows.”
Those who pray also benefit
Besides making the community more sensitive to spiritual matters, prayer walking also seems to benefit those who are praying. After going on a prayer journey to troubled Northern Ireland, Laurie-Ann Zachar Copple could get up little enthusiasm to pray for her neighbours in Kanata, Ont., a middle-class area that is home to computer experts and civil servants. “In suburban Ontario the Lord had to soften my heart. They’re needy too,” says Zachar Copple, a secretary with Anglican Renewal Ministries. Now she’s a dedicated intercessor for her neighbours.
In London, “one of the wonderful things that happened,” adds Ron Mills, “is that people began to change their attitude and perspective towards the community.”
“As you begin to pray for an area you begin to feel God’s heart for that community,” says Paul Francis.
You also see physical clues that give you something specific to pray for, says Heidt: children’s toys, a wheelchair ramp, beer bottles in the recycling bin. “You can hear arguments going on inside of homes,” she says. “You can’t see that and can’t hear that if you’re standing inside your church.”
One of the biggest benefits prayer walkers cite is church unity. On Prince Edward Island, where sectarian divisions can run deep, Christians from Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal and other denominations walked together for several days preceding a prayer gathering sponsored by Watchmen for the Nations last August.
“It did bring a sense of bonding,” says organizer Wayne Dooks, who is ordained with a small prophetic apostolic group called Christian International.
In Toronto, parishioners from St. Saviour’s Anglican and congregants from Calvary Baptist are finding out what they have in common. “We’re forging a much stronger relationship between our two churches,” observes Fisher.
“It certainly has drawn us together,” adds Marlene Ronson, who, with her husband Don, prayer walks the St. Saviour’s designated route each week. “We worship the same God, just in a different style.”
Sometimes denominational cooperation means stepping aside to allow another group to take over. Father Bob Poole, who leads a charismatic Catholic community in Vanier, a suburb of Ottawa, started weekly prayer walks in the area about five years ago, sending pairs out to “pray a blessing” on the residents and shops. “We sensed we were sowing,” he says. “We felt there would be a reaping.” Later, the building the Catholic group was meeting in was sold to a Pentecostal church. To see that congregation grow large made Father Poole happy. “One sows, another reaps,” he says.
Prayer is a lifestyle
Glenna Heidt has loosened her definition and practice of prayer walking over the years. “I used to teach that prayer walking was a separate event. On the other hand I would teach that our prayer life is our relationship with God. As we’re connected with God He puts the prayer on our hearts. I felt I was contradicting myself.” Now she looks to biblical examples like Enoch and Abraham, who “walked with God,” both literally and figuratively. And Jesus, who, she points out, walked through most of His ministry.
Other prayer leaders are also seeking to make prayer walking an integrated part of life rather than a special occasion. “We have a number of people who have made it a lifestyle,” notes Mills.
For some, like Silas Mugambe, it always was a lifestyle. Mugambe is hard pressed to find Scriptures that tell him to prayer walk. “Everything tells me to pray,” he says. “It doesn’t tell me where or when.”
Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.
What’s the Difference? Prayer Walking, Prayer Journeys & Prayer Expeditions
Prayer walking appeals to Christians from a spectrum of denominations, from Baptists to Pentecostals, from Anglicans to Mennonites, partly because there are so many different types practised.
Prayer walking itself can be informal and individual. Shoppers can pray through the mall; students can pray on campus. The most common type of prayer walking involves pairs of people strolling regularly—perhaps weekly—around their neighbourhood or near their church, praying conversationally. As Southern Baptist prayer coordinator Glenna Heidt explains, “You’re not standing on the street corner and pounding your chest. You don’t take your big Bible with you.”
A prayer walk can also mean a group of people walking from one key building to another—city hall to police station, for example—and stopping for prayer, either spontaneous or prepared. In some cases, pray-ers will research the history or pray from a strategic spot. For several years, Christians in St. John’s have been going to Signal Hill—where the first-ever radio broadcast was made—to pray over the city once a week (from June to October).
More ambitious and organized efforts mean mapping out a parish or a city and praying systematically through every block. When several churches in London, Ont., did this in the mid-1990s, it took eight months. A few years later, with 30 churches on board, a prayer manual and a twice-weekly schedule, it only took two weeks.
In longer prayer walks, individual Christians will make a prayerful pilgrimage from one city to another, or across the country.
A prayer journey means going to another country to pray specifically for the needs there. Peg Byars of Vancouver-based Watchmen for the Nations has gone on prayer journeys to several countries. When she and a team went to Sri Lanka in 1995, the Tamil Tigers had just bombed gas facilities outside Colombo. “People said ‘You are crazy to go into that mess,’ “ says Byars. “We said ‘What better time to go?’ We believe that Jesus was welcomed into that area in a great way.”
Then there are prayer expeditions, which, according to Doris Wagner, are not for the faint of spirit. In an article on the Global Harvest web site (the organization led by C. Peter Wagner), she explains that prayer expeditions are “special assignments which come from God to experienced prophetic intercessors,” who target “demonic principalities and powers holding large groups of people under their control.” Most of the time, she says, these intercessors operate covertly, travelling to archaeological sites, ancient places of worship or historical monuments.
A Short History of Processions, Pilgrimages and Prayer Walks
The idea of walking and praying goes back centuries and crosses cultures and religions. Ancient Babylonians, Hindus, Greeks and Romans held prayerful processions. Christian monks used to walk from one cathedral city to another, praying along the journey.
Romans processed while invoking the deity over crops to discourage blight, a practice that was adapted by Christians. “We don’t have a good grasp of the linkages along the way,” says Gerald Ediger, associate professor of Christian history at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, but the practice “becomes evident again in the Middle Ages.”
Every spring, in the week before Ascension Day, called Rogation Week, parishioners would “beat the bounds” by walking the boundary of the parish, claiming it for God, asking God to bless the crops and telling evil spirits to keep out. “Rogation” is from the Latin rogatio (“to ask”) and refers to a “solemn supplication consisting of the litany of the saints chanted on the three days before Ascension Day” (Canadian Oxford Dictionary).
By the time Martin Luther started on his church reforms, the practice had gotten out of hand in some parishes, with “useless gossip and mischief-making,” and worse yet, “beer-swilling” and mistreatment of crosses and banners. In a sermon preached in 1519, Luther set out rules for proper conduct.
“Everyone should behave as follows,” he exhorted: “He should let the litanies and prayer be in His name, and pray to God with a truly earnest faith, remembering His divine merciful promise. And whoever is not willing to do this should stay at home and have the procession in peace” (On Prayer and Procession in Rogation Week, translated by Helga Robinson-Hammerstein).
Modern prayer walking is usually done without fanfare, but there are often links between it and more public processions such as March for Jesus. “March for Jesus grows out of a strongly restorationist and charismatic matrix in the U.K.,” says Ediger, who has researched the movement’s roots. “Prayer walking is a practice that is also associated with that kind of piety.”
As a lead-up to the first March for Jesus a dozen years ago, a group prayerwalked from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England, as well as across the country, forming a cross-like route, “as a way of sanctifying the land,” says Ediger. In Canada, the march has also been preceded by prayer walks in several cities.
For More Information
* Prayerwalking: Praying On Site with Insight, by Graham Kendrick and Steve Hawthorne (Creation House, 1993) is one of the most popular books on the modern phenomenon of prayerwalking.
* For a Canadian resource, try PrayerWalk Canada PrayerWalkers’ Manual by Ron Mills (London, Ont., Christ For Your City and Ron Mills, 1999). You can order this and other books through the web site: www.cfyc.org
* Other helpful websites include:
www.waymakers.org (Steve Hawthorne’s site)
www.globalharvest.org (C. Peter Wagner’s site)