The Nashville bus terminal was packed. It was the first week in January 2009, and my husband, Owen, and I were bidding farewell to my mother-in-law.
Somehow my gaze was drawn to a woman waiting at the ticket counter. Tell her you’ll pray for her, a voice inside me said. Remember your New Year’s resolution: Pray for a stranger every day. I’d been trying to ignore it.
Don’t get me wrong. I pray. Often. But I’m an introvert. A say-my-prayers-in-private kind of person. Besides, I had much bigger things on my mind than worrying about random strangers.
Both of my sons, Chris and Nick, had been deployed right after the holidays. One to Iraq, one to Afghanistan. They’d be gone for a year. I’m proud of my military boys, but I was a total wreck.
What if this turned out to be our last Christmas together? The last time I saw them together? Fear flooded my mind. How could I pray for people I didn’t know when I was the one who needed prayer? And a whole lot of it.
Yet here I was, staring at the woman at the ticket counter and I couldn’t ignore that voice inside any longer. I’d promised to do this and she was my stranger. I mustered up my nerve and walked up to her. She’s going to think I’m crazy.
“Hi, my name is River,” I said. “And… I have this resolution to pray for a stranger every day, and today you’re my stranger so I’ll be thinking about you and saying special prayers for you.”
“Oh, honey! My name is Annie. This is unbelievable! Do you know what I was saying to God just this morning?”
“I was saying my prayers when I asked God, ‘Is there anybody in this whole wide world who is praying for me?’”
This was unbelievable! “Well, it looks like I am,” I said.
Maybe there were other people out there who needed to know someone—even a stranger—was praying for them. From that day forward I tried to be that someone. I prayed for a stranger every day.
I can’t say I chose them exactly. I didn’t have any particular system. Sometimes it seemed like they were chosen for me. I’d turn the corner and a person would come into view and it was like an inexplicable urging: This is the one. It might be a cashier, a man on his lawnmower or a lady at the grocery.
That was Estelle. She was in front of the supermarket collecting contributions for a kids’ ministry. When I told her I’d pray for her she asked my name.
“I’m gonna pray for you too,” she said. “Matter of fact, I’m gonna pray for you right now!” She pulled me close to her. I wanted to say, “No, don’t pray for me here, in public. Pray later, like I do!” Then I felt the balm of her words rush over me, asking for goodness in my life. Pray on, Estelle! I thought. Pray on.
“I’ll pray for you again when God brings you to mind,” she told me. “I won’t even need to remember your name. I’ll see your face and I’ll know.” I knew just what she meant.
That encounter with Estelle boosted my confidence. If she could pray for me so boldly, surely I could do the same for another.
A few days later I met a woman whose son had died. I wrapped my arms around her and prayed fervently. I couldn’t tell you what words I uttered, only that I prayed them out loud with all my might. From one mama to another.
Sometimes I thought I’d chosen the wrong stranger. Take Trisha. I met her at a restaurant. She was young, gorgeous, wearing killer shoes and an artfully tied scarf. Not exactly a “please pray for me” poster child. More like Little Miss Perfect.
Turns out she was a victim of this tough economy, out of work and anxious about finding a job. “Thank you for the prayers,” she said. “I feel better already.” Everyone needs prayer, even beautiful young women wearing designer shoes. Lesson learned.
Other than telling Owen, I kept my resolution from my family and friends, even from the boys. We’d send letters and packages, and have all-too-infrequent video chats on the computer, but I let Chris and Nick do most of the talking. I missed them something fierce!
Knowing I had a stranger to pray for forced me to get out there—to walk through the world with my eyes open and see other people’s needs and troubles, not just my own.
Still, some strangers were there at the right time to help me. Like a man I met in October at the deli. He had red hair and a beard and was sitting with a notepad and pencil. Something about him seemed otherworldly.
I was having a hard time quieting my worries about my boys that day, but I followed my urge to go over and talk to him.
“My name is Edward,” he said. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that you’re praying for me.”
Edward didn’t get into specifics, but for some reason, I found myself pouring my heart out to him.
“Oh, Edward, this means so much to me,” I said. “My two sons are deployed overseas and this resolution, I think, has been saving my life. It pushes me to get out and not get swallowed up by my worries. I just thought you should know.”
Thinking I’d said too much, I walked away from the table.
“River, come back,” he said. “You listen to me. Your sons are going to be all right. They’ll be coming home soon.”
I don’t know if it was the assurance in his voice, but I believed him. Maybe he was an angel. A slightly shabby, It’s a Wonderful Life kind of angel. Or maybe he was an ordinary redheaded man who had an amazingly good word for me.
Annie, Estelle, Trisha, Edward—each one left an indelible impression on me. All 365 of my strangers did. From the college freshman who asked for prayers for her bipolar mother to the elderly man who’d lost his wife to the woman who simply asked me to pray for her to have a good life.
Some days I prayed for more than one person. Like Gus and Pearl, a couple I met in the doctor’s waiting room or the time I prayed for a children’s clinic in Georgia.
No one asked for material things—only for blessings, for family, for love, for health. Just one person turned me away. I prayed for her anyway.
That December my boys came home safe and sound. Now two years later, that resolution I’d resisted is a vital part of my life. I still pray for a stranger every day. And every day I’m reminded of the power of prayer. That it’s not only a connection to God; it connects us to each other.
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