Updated: May 21, 2014 6:08AM
“Please say a prayer for my stepfather. We can all use a little help on occasion.” — Jennifer Fontaine, of St. John
Although Carla Berry has been using Facebook for four years, the church bookkeeper from Portage didn’t realize that she’s part of an emerging trend in this country.
Berry is one of millions of Americans who use social media to request specific prayers from friends, followers and perfect strangers, even if they’re not believers.
“Using Facebook for prayers is brilliant. You can reach a lot of people in a short time,” said Berry, a youth ministry leader at Crossroads Family Church in her city. “Even my friends who don’t profess Christianity will say ‘sending warm wishes’ or ‘sending positive thoughts your way.’”
Before using Facebook, Berry often joked that it was the devil’s tool because it typically reflected its users in the worst ways.
“I saw many families torn apart by its misuse,” Berry told me.
But once she signed up — to keep in touch with her church youth group — she’s been using Facebook for her prayer needs.
“I believe in the power of prayer, and I’ve seen it in action,” she said. “There is a peace that comes from knowing that people are praying for you during a difficult time.”
Even if it’s requested on social media?
“Yes,” she replied. “I have used it for things like job searching, financial needs, family trouble and medical tests. The response is always great. Allowing them to be an intimate part of your life and to pray for you is something everyone can do regardless of their education or financial state.”
Each day, I read dozens of online prayer requests on my social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. On this Easter Sunday, I have a confession — I’ve never offered a prayer for any of them. In fact, I’ve never prayed as an adult.
“Today more than ever we need peaceful prayer in our society,” said the Rev. Joe Vamos of Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church in Merrillville.
“Innocent people being gunned down on our streets. Terror and killings in our schools. The war in Afghanistan, the killings in Iraq. The violence in Ukraine, the recent killing on the premises of the Jewish cultural center in Kansas, and on and on.
“The first words of Jesus after the resurrection to his disciples were, ‘Peace be with you,’” he said. “May our celebration of Easter and Passover be a time of peace and absence of fear.”
Prayers can help bring such peace, even if they’re requested online rather than in church.
Jennifer Fontaine, a dentist from St. John, doesn’t often ask for prayers on Facebook, but she felt compelled to request them last week, posting, “Please say a prayer for my stepfather. We can all use a little help on occasion.”
“In this particular situation,” she told me afterward, “my stepdad is dealing with a life-threatening condition so I feel it is important. Plus, my mom asked if I’d post it and mention her so their friends see it as well.”
The Rev. Jeffrey Kirch, religious adviser to the president of St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, also has noticed a rise in online prayer requests.
“In some ways, this is a new phenomenon, but in other ways it’s not,” he said. “The technology has definitely changed, but the desire to have others praying for your intentions has not.”
For decades, churches have had “prayer chains” involving parishioners calling each other on the phone to ask for prayers. Or prayer books are offered at a church’s entrance to write requests. Prayer appeals in 21st century cyberspace are no different.
“What is different is that these prayer requests end up going out to a greater number of people than through telephone calls and prayer books,” Kirch said.
There is a paradox, however. As we seemingly become more connected, we also become more disconnected.
“Despite our social media, we are becoming more disconnected from one another, at least at a deep level. Much of our contact with friends on social media stays at the surface,” Kirch said.
This may be true, but many Christian-minded social media users feel strongly about the power of prayer in the digital age, especially during Easter.
“Praying is so natural to me that I have been asking for prayers from others on Facebook since I began my account years ago,” said Michele Burton, a homemaker from Hobart. “Most of my Facebook friends are believers, and I am always asking for prayers from them for certain things happening in my life or in the life of others.”
She also is happy to pray for others in need, using a dry-erase board in her home to jot down people’s names and specific situations.
“The power of prayer works, absolutely,” she said. “I do not always know ... how it turned out for who I prayed for, but I do not need to. That’s up to God.”
Kirch is more skeptical of this trend, saying prayer requests via social media too often get lumped together amid all the other messages, comments and announcements.
“It can easily be lost in the mix,” he said.
People today still have the timeless need to connect with others in relationships that are meaningful, tangible and life-affirming, he said.
“At one level, social media has made it possible to know the ups and downs of thousands of people’s lives. But at the same time it is partially responsible for superficial relationships of little depth,” Kirch said. “Nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation with a friend who is in need of prayers.”
Learn more about the power of prayer in the digital age. Video at posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html