In 2008, New York City churches began a men’s prayer walk in the Polo Grounds, a public housing complex in Harlem. After four homicides in a 30-day period, the objective was to walk into the roughest and most dangerous communities where gun violence and the death of young black teens and children occurred at alarming rates. Since the start of the Polo Grounds prayer walk, the crime rate has dropped, and it was nearly four years before another murder occurred there.
During the formative years of the Polo Grounds prayer walk, former NYPD Commissioner, Ray Kelly, told me about the escalating violence in Chicago. Currently, Chicago has broken its own record for the most murders in a year, exceeding well over 700 to date (dnainfo.com/chicago/2016-chicago-murders/). Nearly 5000 people sustained injuries in 2016. To me, the mission became clear: walk 780 miles from New York to Chicago, praying for people and with people along the route.
The purpose of the walk was to listen, reach out to, and pray with people in need of comfort and liberation, letting them know they matter. Some communities face ongoing individual and collective struggles. By walking through these communities, we wanted to communicate hope and solidarity to all we met. The simple act of holding a neighbor’s hand or standing in solitude at a place of unrest showed to others that we are human, we are humane, and we are here. The walk invited the country to corporately reach, touch, and impact the heart of humanity through the platform of prayer walking. Our goal was to encourage and inspire hope for peace.
As preparation, I began several months of training with staff, coworkers, and friends. We averaged 20 miles a day three to four times a week. Although the Chicago walk was set, resources were limited. I hit a low point two weeks before the launch date. Finances were far short of the estimated cost. I recall feeling overwhelmed. I questioned whether I had really heard from God. My focus shifted from the task, to all the things needed. What was I thinking? While spiraling downward, I received a call from my wife. She shared something God placed in her heart: “God will take you through this and meet your every need.” I immediately sensed God’s presence and peace. I let go of my plans and followed God’s presence.
The Chicago prayer walk began at the United Nations on Sunday, August 7. At the Church of the Covenant, Rev. Dr. Cornell Edmonds and his congregation provided a special prayer send-off. Then my congregation, Infinity Mennonite Church of Harlem, gave us another celebratory send-off
when we passed their location.
From Morristown, New Jersey, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, we received a positive reception among these rural communities that was nothing like the typical nightly news. Pennsylvania State Trooper Eugene Jenkins, nicknamed Mean Jean, met us at a gas station. He helped us map the next leg of our walk. As we parted, Jenkins shared that if we needed anything, we could stop at any trooper bunker, get refreshments, and use the facilities. “If you encounter any problems,” he offered, “ask for me.” The police officers in the seven states we crossed treated us with courtesy and respect.
One hot morning ten miles from the Ohio border, we encountered three young men preparing to pour a concrete driveway. I exchanged greetings with one of them who asked where we were going. When I told him we were walking from New York City to Chicago, he immediately brought the other workers into the conversation. One offered us cold water, another chips and fresh baked brownies. Fran, the homeowner who had hired them, soon entered the conversation. We shared food and fellowship right there along the driveway. Fran assured us that God had encouraged her and that God would meet our needs.
A few miles farther along, I met a couple who thought we were lost. I shared what we were doing and mentioned meeting their neighbor, Fran. It was during that conversation that I first began to weep uncontrollably. The weeping occurred daily for nearly a week as we walked in Ohio. We experienced the outpouring of love from strangers all along the way. While sitting in a diner, we met John, a truck driver. He was surprised to learn that I was a Mennonite pastor on a prayer walk from New York City to Chicago. John insisted on paying for our meal.
On another occasion, a motorist made a U-turn when he saw us walking along the road and offered us a lift. He reached in his wallet and put $20 in my hand. After thanking him, we turned to begin walking when another man jumped from his vehicle and put $50 in my hand to purchase meals for the team that evening.
Mr. Knight stopped us on a rural road by a cornfield in Ohio because he thought we were stranded. When he heard our story, he insisted we stop at his place to rest and have some refreshments. We rested and chatted about Mr. Knight’s passion to serve inner city youth in Cleveland, 45 minutes from his home. We talked about bringing inner city kids to rural communities such as his. Before leaving, he gave us fresh vegetables from his garden.
In Elkhart, Indiana, I met a mother, her daughter, and a friend sitting on the porch of their home. I introduced myself and told them about our walk to Chicago. I learned of the drug-fueled crime in the area. When we offered to pray for them, the mother asked us to pray for her three-month-old grandson. She hurried into the house and returned with a handsome bundle of joy, and we prayed.
In God’s timing, we arrived in Chicago on “Pray Chicago Day” when churches from around the city and neighboring communities come together to pray for the city. Denominations and political affiliations take a back seat on this day. The last mile from downtown Chicago to the Moody Bible Institute was awesome. Nearly 100 saints gathered there in prayer.
As an African-American, I began the journey with my own prejudices and expectations of treatment by rural, predominantly Caucasian communities. As God poured out love to me through the kindness of strangers, God revealed the reason for my tears. God shattered my expectations of mistreatment even as I prayed for and with others.
I look forward to trekking across the country in the summer of 2017. Imagine rural America and urban America sharing gardening and farming ideas and experiences. Tell us how you creatively share the gospel. Post a message on the LMC Facebook page or send me a message at ItsALoveThingAlways@gmail.com.
To learn more about Reverend Al Taylor’s prayer walk, visit the prayer walk website at itsalovethingprayerwalk.com.
Reverend Al Taylor is the lead pastor at Infinity Mennonite Church.