I drink coffee only on Thursdays. This is mainly because that’s the day I sit at a local coffee shop for a few hours with a little sign that says “Free Prayer.”
I like to think I have great ideas, but advice I’ve received from others gets all the credit for my work as a first-call parish pastor. One mentor and professor said, “As pastors, the first thing we have to do is take care of our people,” so I focused my first year of ministry on spending time at people’s homes.
A second bit of advice came from another pastor: “A pastor is doing the job well when at least half of his or her time is spent outside the office.” Pastors regularly go on hospital visits or stop by newcomers’ homes, but administrative demands of parish ministry keep many of us shackled to our swivel chairs. Every Thursday I heed that good advice and flee to a coffee shop to read and write a sermon.
When I first started doing this about a year ago, I felt insecure and self-indulgent—an incognito pastor munching an “everything” bagel with cream cheese and calling it work. I had to legitimize pastoring in Panera Bread.
That’s when I began wearing my clergy collar and taking a sign that says “Free Prayer” with a quote at the bottom from Martin Luther: “Pray, and let God worry.”
Now people stop to pray with me.
One morning a man I hadn’t met walked into the Starbucks in which I sat. Amari from west Philadelphia had business at the courthouse in Doylestown, Pa., where I serve. He looked at me and asked, “Free prayer? What’s that?” I explained that I’m a pastor in town who goes out to where people are during the week to offer prayer. His eyes welled with tears. He placed his coffee and courthouse papers on my table and walked outside.
I packed our things and followed outside to invite Amari to go for a walk. As we strolled together, I heard all the unuttered prayers and pains he had held inside for two years. His wife had experienced an identity crisis and left him. A dear friend had died from a blood clot. An aunt had died from medical malpractice. Another friend had died from an overdose. Finally, death had taken his sister. Death had hollowed out Amari’s spirit, and he had spoken about it to no one.
“Then I read those words, ‘free prayer,’ and I couldn’t keep it in anymore,” he said. It seemed that God had enacted a little apocalypse, an awakening, in Amari’s soul. And all I’d had to do at first was sit there.
Though I offer prayers for others, the blessings have also come to me. I recall when a man sat down and requested prayer for a friend undergoing heart surgery. I asked whether he’d like to start the prayer. He began, “Dear God, I thank you for Thomas. Thank you for giving him the courage to offer prayer in this place. And Lord, may Thomas know that you are well-pleased with what he is doing.”
Heaven embraced me with that prayer. I was second-guessing my ability to reverse trends, to draw more people to worship, to inspire more generosity. Then a stranger prayed for me and I felt, at least in that moment, that I was doing something right.
The bulk of my ministry is still among people within my congregation, but I’m grateful for those free prayers at coffee shops each week. I think of the schizophrenic woman who asked for prayer because she sees witches. We prayed for courage, strength and protection. An owner of a Dunkin’ Donuts asked me to pray for her shop. Upon seeing my free prayer Facebook post, an old acquaintance asked for prayer for his nephew born three months early. A Starbucks manager sat down at my table to share what God had been up to in her life.
While this ministry has done admittedly little to expand the ranks of my congregation, it has done much to expand my vocation to include the ranks of God’s people I’ve never met who are searching for answers, waiting for comfort and willing to pray.
An Amari walks into a coffee shop every day in your town. It may be a man or a woman, young or old, but an Amari is there—and he or she could use some prayer. I set up my sign to invite people to “pray, and let God worry” right where they are because the Amaris need prayer and aren’t about to walk into my office at church.
Sometimes we have to move beyond the shadows of a steeple to take care of our people. In so doing, we may just find that God takes care of us too.
A version of “Why I offer ‘free prayer’ in a coffee shop” was originally published in Faith and Leadership, an online magazine of Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C.
Living Lutheran interviewed Rusert to learn more about his “free prayer” idea and what has changed since his post went viral.
Q & A: Free prayer popularity
Living Lutheran: What gave you the idea to make the “Free Prayer” sign and take it with you on your weekly coffee shop visits?
Rusert: A Lutheran pastor shared a story of his campus ministry days. He and his students would take a couch to the middle of the quad with a sign that said “Share your story.” I didn’t think I could quite get away with that in Panera, so I adapted the idea.
Stories take time and a great deal of openness. Prayer, on the other hand, can be shared in a few seconds, and it’s something that most people are receptive to or have done before, even if they don’t go to church. There is something universal about prayer.
What has happened since your post on Faith and Leadership became popular online?
Many people took interest in the article and the Free Prayer ministry. Fox News posted a nonpartisan article about it and more than 50,000 liked or shared it on Facebook. Then it started showing up in all kinds of places, many of which I had never heard of. I even got a call from a megachurch to do a Skype interview.
Thankfully, most of the interest has been positive and encouraging.
In your post you offered to share your “Free Prayer” sign. Has anyone taken you up on this?
I thought I would get five or 10 requests. Right now we’re at approximately 250. Interest has come from across the country and around the globe, with requests from Hong Kong, South Africa, Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland and Nigeria.
I have a partner who has hand made the signs to perfection—appearance matters. She has been amazing handling the administrative details for mailing and other communications. If you would like a sign, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What words of advice do you have for other pastors who are looking for creative ways to minister in their communities?
Be conspicuous. I wear my collar and put up a sign in a public space. It’s working.
Be available. We’re anything but available to our community if we’re in the church office all week, even if we leave our doors open. I get it: I don’t have time to get everything done in the office either. Some things won’t get done—and way more important things will.
Be gracious. During my Free Prayer encounters, I mostly listen to people’s stories, burdens and prayer requests. In all honesty there is a lot more listening than praying that happens. I trust God would approve.