The ten of us stand in a circle, hands joined. Brother Marcus, the shepherd of our nightly prayer circle, asks if anyone has a praise report he’d like to share with the group. Javier, a relative newcomer, thanks God for banishing his wife’s car troubles. Brother Travis thanks God for allowing him to see another day.
“I should have been dead,” he says, and in fact he did die once, after being shot by a rival drug dealer. The doctors revived him. Brother Travis has often tried to share with us his testimony–how he came from hustling dope to following Jesus Christ–but he becomes so overwhelmed with emotion that he’s never able to finish.
“That God could love me,” he continues, “an unworthy sinner . . .” He stops and stares absently into a corner of the old vacant TV room where we meet. The other brothers punctuate the silence with a murmur of hallelujahs and praise Jesuses, which seems to bring him back.
Next Brother Marcus solicits the group for prayer requests. In the three months that I’ve been attending the prayer circle, the men have asked God to intervene in a variety of matters: the healing of sick mothers, the mending of broken relationships, the protecting of sons and daughters. After California kicked out Proposition Eight and DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, it became a staple in our nightly requests to pray for our nation’s law makers to govern according to the laws of God and not by the laws of man.
One night Officer Hall asked us to pray for his marriage.
Tonight Brother Phillip asks that we pray for his cousin Ezera, whom his aunt says is possessed by a demon. Brother Warren, who stands to my right, asks us to pray for his grandmother Beatrice, who is in the hospital again; something to do with her heart; she may need an operation. Warren’s brown hand feels cool and dry in mine. I give it a squeeze, partly to offer condolence, and partly because I have a terrible crush on him.
Clerical checklist complete, Brother Marcus asks if any of the brothers feel led to conduct the prayer. (He’s careful not to ask who “wants” or “would like” to lead the prayer, because as Christians we know we must allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit and not by our own will.) With the exception of Javier, I’m the only man in the group who hasn’t prayed yet. Even with my eyes closed and head bowed I can feel Marcus’s stare boring into me, daring me to accept the baton. After a moment of stubborn silence, he himself begins to pray.
Brother Warren, I’ve noticed, has a tendency to shiver when we pray, the spasms rolling down his arm and into my hand. To my left stands Brother Jacob, a burly Cuban with sweaty palms, whose habit while praying is to rock back and forth and to lift his hands in a gesture of offering. I allow my left hand to be lifted with his but leave my right to hang and be gently tussled by Warren’s convulsions. I peek with one eye to see how many men Jacob has managed to coerce into raising their hands. To his left are Brother Phillip, Brother Travis, and Brother Darryl, all standing with their hands held aloft. But Javier, the newcomer who stands to the left of Brother Darryl, has rebelled; he allows his right hand to be lifted by Darryl’s but keeps his left hand down. The effect of our combined sabotage is that only half of the circle’s hands are raised while the other half stands blindly unaware of their exclusion.
The symmetrical imbalance makes me smile.
Brother Marcus’s prayers are effusive, bordering on ostentatious. He throws everything into the pot–every scripture, every proverb, every adage–like a slapdash cook who’s discovered bottled herbs. He’s speaking now about Calvary and about “propitiation” and about Jesus Christ being the “lamp at our feet and the light on our path.” But I can’t catch everything over the catechetic din of hallelujahs and praise Jesuses from the other brothers.
And why don’t they ever call me their brother? Brother Marcus, Brother Warren, Brother Phillip, Brother Travis–they all address each other as Brother except me. Am I being subtly jilted? Are they on to me? Do they know that my Christian persona is a fraud intended to secure asylum within their community? I sometimes wonder if Warren’s shivering and Jacob’s rocking aren’t actual manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and if they can sense my disbelief as a break in their circle, a sucking void from which their light leaks.
I shut my eyes tighter and imagine that God is in the red and green floaters that swim behind my eyelids. But is doesn’t work. I feel nothing.
“Amen,” I say, one beat behind the others.
Back in my room I pull out my legal pad and Study Bible, a gift from one of the Christians whose cellmate left it behind when he went home. If I’m going to play the part of a Christian, I may as well throw myself into the role. I decide I will lead tomorrow night’s prayer, and it’ll be the best damn prayer they’ve ever heard, one to set aside any doubts they might have of my faith. They’ll be calling me their brother before long.
The only problem is that I’ve never actually prayed before. I open my donated Bible and on the first page is a dedication–“to Ronald E. Grahm, from friends and family.” On the next few pages are spaces for recording births, baptisms, and marriages, all of which are blank except the last page, Deaths. On this, scrawled in blue ink, is a single entry: “Edward Joe Grahm, 1-22-05.”
A father? A son? A brother?
I turn to the sixth chapter of Matthew, to the Lord’s Prayer. A footnote instructs that when we pray we should “praise God, pray for His work in the world, pray for our daily needs, and pray for help in our daily struggles.” With this template in mind, I begin to write.
I spend the next morning memorizing my prayer. At lunch I run into Brother Jacob.
“I have a feeling the Holy Spirit might lead me tonight.”
“Hallelujah!” he says and pats my shoulder.
I walk away imagining for a moment that I can smell the sulfuric fumes of impending hell.
That night at the prayer circle, Brother Warren opens the service by reading from the book of Isaiah. His lips are brown-pink, the color of rare roast beef, and perfectly formed. I don’t hear a word he’s saying. Instead, I’m imagining a scenario in which the room is engaged in a discussion on eye color. One brother makes the hasty observation that each of us in the group has brown eyes, at which point I say, No, that isn’t true, and the room goes quiet. Warren looks at me. And then, speaking through the others, I state that Warren’s eyes are not brown but in fact hazel. Later Warren pulls me into his room and tells me that nobody has ever noticed his eyes are hazel and not brown. And then we’re lying in his bunk making love atop a pile of cool, camp laundry.
Brother Marcus is asking for praise reports and prayer requests. The group goes silent. We’ve joined hands without my realizing it.
“Does anyone feel led tonight?”
Brother Jacob winks at me from across the circle.
“I’ll do it,” I say, a little too loudly. “I mean, yes. I feel led.”
I close my eyes and pray:
Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to fellowship this evening. We ask that you draw us closer into a right relationship with you, so that we may better serve you, and each other.
Father God, we thank you for your mercy and refuge. We thank you for the love and joy you place in our hearts every day.
Father God, we ask that you create in us clean hearts and cleanse us in your blood from all unrighteousness. We ask that you help us be more obedient servants of your Word and to be the men of God you have called on us to be.
Father God, we ask that you watch over us. We ask that you bless our friends, families, and loved ones. Bless this compound, Father God, and fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we may reach out and minister your Word to those here in need.
We ask these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ.
The circle begins to clap, which isn’t extraordinary in itself; we always applaud after the prayer. But what surprises me is when Brother Marcus slaps me on the back and congratulates me.
“Good prayer!” he cries. “Good prayer!”
My face warms as he shakes my hand and propels me into the arms of the other men. I’ve done it! I’ve fooled them! I except the hand of each member and leave the room feeling confident that I’ve bought myself more time. My place within the community is secure, and I am secure.
Walking to my room, I begin brainstorming future prayers. It would be best to keep several on hand; one never knows when the Holy Spirit might come calling again. My next performance will be better: I’ll quote scripture. I’ll mention Calvary. It’ll be poetic and humbling.
“Good night, Brother.”
I turn just as I’m reaching my door and his knuckles dap lightly against mine as he passes. I catch the impression of a smile and of eyes that are hazel and not brown.
“Good night,” I whisper.
Please forgive me.