24 Hour House of Prayer

On the way back from BigCity, NC Noelle and I stop at the 24 Hour House of Prayer. I have been driving by it for four years and never noticed it. The humble, brown siding blended into the backdrop of the highway scenery so seamlessly, I’d never once given the structure more than a passing thought.

Until a few weeks ago, as I drove along the black stretch highway into the even blacker night (it was a new moon). First I saw a slit of light, long and narrow as if someone held a flashlight beam along the length of a pole. As I approached, I saw that the light came from a door that was slightly ajar. It shone out onto a narrow gravel path and lit the sign above the door: “24 Hour House of Prayer. Open to the Public.”

I resolved to go back during the daylight, or if at night, to bring a buddy. Tonight seemed the perfect opportunity.

“Did you know about this place?” I asked Noelle as we pulled to the side of the road.

“I’ve never even seen it before,” she said, “and I drive by it every week.”

I followed close at her heels across the gravel path, down a few handmade steps, and to the closed double doors of the house. Noelle fiddled with a metal hook and eye, I heard a creak, and then that same sliver of light escaped the slightly opened door and we both took a step back. Noelle swung the door wide and we stepped in, then closed it behind us.

The room was small and warm, somehow insulated against winter despite it’s crooked outside appearance. The air smelled of kerosene from three small lanterns that sat in the back right corner of the house. There were five or six pews, a central walkway up to a podium and shrine, and even an old half-sized electric piano. A trunk at the foot of the podium served as a table, where notepads and pencils awaited the written prayers of the anonymous. A small folder at the foot of the trunk held an archive of such prayers, dating back for a few weeks or a few years I could not tell in the faint light. A single newspaper article was stapled to the wall, detailing the House of Prayer and providing a short history. Again, in the dim light, it was difficult to decipher complete sentences.

I stepped up to the podium and faced the pews. I slid my hands across the dusty top of the twelve-inch long bible and it’s cover immediately slipped away from the pages of the book and nearly fell to the floor. I looked closely and saw that not a single page remained bound to the cover, side, or back of the original Bible. It was either ancient or neglected, possibly both, but in the near darkness of the silent prayer house, its pages felt mysterious and inviting in my grip.

Finally, a bit saddened that we could not read anything, Noelle and I decided to leave but vowed to come back. The space we left behind as we re-latched the hook and eye and slowly retreated back up the gravel path was quiet and peaceful, perfect for prayer or meditation. I’ve been wanting to explore the mountain churches of my valley ever since I moved here, but never felt that I could attend without either being stared at as an obvious outsider, or being looked down upon because people would think I was a spectator (and I’ve been told as much by regular attendees, I might add). But the 24 Hour House of Prayer was a safe early foray into such a space. I’ll be able to go back and read people’s prayers, see how they ask and how they give thanks, surmise at their bent postures or raised voices in song, and offer something of my own interpretation, perhaps, finally attempting to merge my Buddhist faith with that of the Christian locals. A little overlap never hurt anybody and meditation is prayer and vice versa. Feels like the beginning of a story.

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