I watch people every noontime handwrite their prayers in a book near the entrance of our chapel. Parishioners and strangers pen thoughts, worries, and hopes for a better life on white paper in a simple black three-ring binder. People hope that God will soon respond. They wish that God could text them back.
There are no instructions, icons or lit candles or kneelers or holy cards, but people have come to understand that being present to this black book is an experience of the holy. These pages include a printed prayer for the ministry of our urban chapel and blank spaces to be filled in with personal thoughts and petitions.
This collection of prayers handwritten in Advent especially breaks my heart. There are no quick replies from God. These words on cheap paper, however, change my life. I read the scratchy printing of a mentally ill woman who begs God to release her boyfriend from prison. The flowery penmanship tells the story of an elderly woman praying she will receive money to pay her rent in the single-room occupancy hotel. The tiny print swears at God for giving the author mental illness. Some prayers I read beg for food and others echo a longing for the end of war. In small print one prayer storms heaven asking God to get rid of deep depression. No matter the penmanship or requests, these sacred cries open me up to profound prayer from the tragically lonely voices of people in poverty.
These prayers are written by people who have no voice in the world. Very few people listen to poor people with mental illness. The man sleeping at our front door gets no response from anyone in our society who can foster change. These prayers speak the loudest to our parishioners who work hard to build a community where people are welcomed.
I read the blue-ink prayers, petitions and expressions of anger and realize these prayers are words of prophets. God planted into the throats of the ancient prophets cries to help people remember the poor, the starving and the prisoner. The ancient reformers called people to look again at the needs of ordinary people. These prayers at our doorway call everyone who reads them to cultural reform and honesty.
Zephaniah told his people not to be discouraged, to live without fear and rejoice in God who loves His people. I hear the same from many of our parishioners who live outside and still rejoice in the smallest kindness. Jeremiah spoke out that the Lord shall be of justice and mercy. I hear this cry from friends who reassure me that they are cared for by God even when nights are wet and cold.
John the Baptist pointed his words and life into the direction of God and screamed his concerns to reform and to repent. These written prayers for me act as agents of renewal for our community. They beg us to rely only on God and to act quickly, lovingly and with integrity. These prayers alarm every community to wake up from self-concern, overindulgence, and needless materialism. The prayers of the poor activate my conscience, stir my anger, and show me only God is in charge. I feel all the injustices of the world in these simple prayers.
The prayer texts of the poor also remind me of the sins of the Church. These sins go deeper into communities beyond our small neighborhood. We can no longer ignore people who suffer mental illness or who remain caught in drug addictions. We must speak out of the reality of war when homeless veterans show up to write prayers in our chapel. We have a sacred duty to help men and women who sell their bodies for drug money. Advent calls us to provide shelter, food and hospitality because even the Holy Family was once in need. Our sins are embedded in the prayers of the poor.
I learn from these prayers that Christmas is for the poor. Christmas through its advertising, economic forecasts, and bottom lines so often promotes the notion that love is for only beautiful, thin and wealthy people. The voices of our friends living below the poverty level, in transitional housing or under cardboard huts along the street, must not grow silent in the dark days of Advent.
I read these black-book prayers with hope. They are written so all of us can eavesdrop on personal conversations with God and learn to pray more honestly. These Advent intercessions ignite my faith to work on behalf of people who need the basics of life. I know God responds to each prayer, not through written texts, but through the work of us all.