Beyond expectations: Weekly gathering surprises hosts

25 December 2007

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA, United States — A couple of neighbors in this southern U.S. city have been throwing a weekly "spiritual party" - a prayer meeting - and the reaction to it has surprised them.

"When the devotional gathering started, all our friends just came out of the woodwork," said J. B. Frush-Marple, who with his friend Oak Ritchie co-hosts the meetings at Mr. Ritchie's house.

"People who I never would have thought would be receptive to prayer were just energized by it," said Mr. Frush-Marple, 33.

Three people came to the first gathering a year ago, and regular attendance now is about 15. Once 25 people showed up. Some are neighbors, some are friends, some are friends of friends.

The pair are usually the only Baha'is. Others are Christian - both Protestant and Catholic - and still others don't label their religion, or perhaps would say they are unbelievers.

The gatherings are held each Tuesday and begin with a simple dinner prepared by the two friends, followed by devotions. Usually Mr. Ritchie, a professional musician, starts by singing a Baha'i prayer. Sometimes people sing with him.

Then others say prayers. Some read verses from Baha'i prayer books available at the gathering. Others say prayers from their own religious tradition. Still others pray in their own words.

Mr. Ritchie, 28, said the comfortable environment of his home helps the guests relax and get into the experience of prayer.

"It's not an unfriendly building somewhere. It's not a church, or a Baha'i Center. It's my home. It's like a spiritual party where everyone is noticed," said Mr. Ritchie, who is known as "Oak."

Lloyce Nelson is a neighbor who has gotten to know the two men only in the past year but said she feels like she has known them forever.

"I love the fact that they are open to people of all religions to come, pray, talk and examine their lives," said Ms. Nelson, who is a Christian.

"Prayer is an intimate thing," she said. "In sharing that intimacy you become closer to people."

Mr. Ritchie said his friends like coming to the gatherings because they provide a place where people can explore some of the deeper aspects of themselves yet the format isn't complicated.

"It's the simplicity of the gathering that people like," said Mr. Ritchie. "You know, coming together to break bread and say prayers with each other."

Justin H. Williams has attended the gatherings. He is a blind man that describes himself as a "wandering warrior." He also clearly identifies himself as a Christian.

"People are afraid of what they don't know," Mr. Williams said. "But there is nothing to be afraid of here. Getting together to say prayers, singing, talking and having dinner shouldn't scare anyone! Sometimes I'll notice that I'm the only Christian there, but it's still okay."

Mr. Williams said that these meetings create an environment that helps people become closer.

"This is one of the only times that praying with a group has brought me closer to them," he said. "I believe that with a Baha'i Faith devotional you are going to be closer to people than you can be at other prayer meetings. Because it is more intimate. There are only a couple of you in that room and you really get to know each other on another level - a spiritual level."

Mr. Frush-Marple, who himself became a Baha'i about a year ago, said the meetings are easy to host.

"To tell you the truth, all we prepare for them is food," he said. "Oak and I will put out prayer books and things, but the experience on the night is really an organic one. People are able to go with what they are feeling.

"I think we associate group prayer with a ritualistic practice," he said. "But here it's just our souls communing together. These meetings present a different paradigm when it comes to community prayer."

The gatherings have a noticeable effect on people, said Mr. Ritchie.

"At the end of the meeting you can see a serenity in people - you just know they are at peace," he said. "When people that experience this together meet in other places they can fall right back into that serenity. It's a new kind of comfort with people. It's like the type of comfort two people that have been through a lot of tests and trials have with each other."

Ms. Nelson said she has noticed changes around the neighborhood, too.

"I've seen some positive changes in some of the young people," she said. "There is one young man I know that tells me no matter what is going on in his life, and there is a lot going on, he always feels better leaving the meeting than he did when he went in."