September 11, 2015

Building hope and faith: Prayer ministry at Bloomington parish hopes to serve as model for others

Paul Heerdink offers a prayer to God for Denise Sawyer as Scott Benningfield shares in the moment at St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington. The parish’s prayer ministry uses a prayer station, a prayer book and a group of “prayer warriors” to help people through the challenges of life. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Paul Heerdink offers a prayer to God for Denise Sawyer as Scott Benningfield shares in the moment at St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington. The parish’s prayer ministry uses a prayer station, a prayer book and a group of “prayer warriors” to help people through the challenges of life. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BLOOMINGTON—Paul Heerdink smiles when people approach him with looks of joy and even amazement as they share their stories of how they finally found a job, sold their house or recovered from a devastating injury after they began to pray for those results.

After listening to their stories, Heerdink sometimes shares his own, including how prayer transformed the health of his wife.

“My wife suffered so long with her back,” he recalls. “Some people prayed with her one weekend. On the following Monday, she was lying in bed like she often had to, and she heard the Lord say, ‘Get up, I’m healing you.’ She felt her legs stretch out. When I came home, she was at the sink, washing dishes. I asked her what she was doing. She said, ‘I got healed.’ ”

Fueled by his belief in the power of prayer, Heerdink has led an inspiring and difference-making ministry at St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington for the past year—a ministry that he hopes will be a model for other parishes in the archdiocese.

It can all start with just a prayer station, a prayer book and a group of “prayer warriors”—some of the key parts of the prayer support team at St. John. Of course, everything relies upon the most important part, Heerdink says: Offering your prayers to God with a trust that he will listen to and answer them.

‘I didn’t know I could ask God for that’

The story of the prayer station at St. John begins shortly after Father Daniel Mahan became the pastor of the parish in the summer of 2013.

As a long line of parishioners formed to greet him, a young couple approached him asking for prayers. Father Mahan spent time with the couple. He also wanted to make sure that someone else with a prayer request wouldn’t drift away because of a long line or a lengthy conversation. So he proposed the idea of having a permanent prayer station that would be staffed by parishioners after each of the three weekend Masses.

“Many times, people come to church with various sorrows,” says Father Mahan. “They’re looking for someone to connect with and pray with.”

Heerdink volunteered to lead the effort, based upon his wife’s results from prayer and his own.

“They discovered I had Parkinson’s disease in 2009,” notes Heerdink, who is 72. “I take medication every day, and I pray a lot. My doctor is amazed I’m as active as I am.”

With Father Mahan’s help, he developed a plan for the prayer station, including training for the parishioners who would staff it. He also encouraged people to approach the prayer station.

“Some were comfortable with it, but it was new to others,” Heerdink says. “Many people said, ‘I didn’t know I could ask God for that.’ Several people were looking for jobs or trying to sell a house. One couple had been trying to sell their house for three years, and they sold it within three weeks of praying for it.

“People seem to have opened up to this. They come with their burdens—physically, emotionally, spiritually or financially.”

The prayer support team offers to pray with them immediately, and also offers to share their request by e-mail with the 120 “prayer warriors” of the parish.

“Healings are happening,” says Denise Sawyer, head of the parish’s service and care commission.

She shares that conclusion from personal experience.

A path to connect with God and others

In the fall of 2014, Sawyer fell and broke her left knee cap—after breaking her right knee previously. She seemed destined for a future in a wheelchair because of the combination.

“My doctor said, ‘The only thing I can do is put you in a brace for three months,’ because of my brittle bones,” Sawyer recalls. “He said it was my one shot, but he wasn’t encouraging. I was in a wheelchair the very first Sunday after that. I was immediately prayed over, and the prayer warriors became involved. I have no problems at all now. I can bend the knee. I was very blessed.”

Part of the parish’s prayer effort involves making it possible for people to share a “praise report,” which is essentially a “thank you to God” for answering a person’s prayer, Heerdink says.

Praise reports have been written for new jobs, successful surgeries, a little girl’s ability to eat and breathe on her own after a difficult birth, and for a drastic change in a young man’s behavior of drinking and being violent.

Heerdink is adamant about making people understand who deserves the credit.

“I train our support team members to ask, ‘What would you like God to do for you?’ We want them to realize we’re just prayer warriors. I want them to have that connection to God right away. When they have an encounter with God, they have a relationship with God as those prayers are being answered.”

At the same time, the connection to each other can make a huge difference, too, says Scott Benningfield, the parish’s director of religious education.

“There’s such a big disconnect in society,” he says. “People are so consumed in their own lives. They feel others don’t care about them. The prayer station serves as a way to reconnect with people. It provides this comfort that people are concerned for my well-being, that there are prayer warriors who are also sending my message to God.

“That’s very comforting to have when we have those moments in life when we need to lean on each other.”

That comfort is especially needed when prayers aren’t answered by God in the way people hope.

“Sometimes, the healing isn’t physical,” Sawyer says. “Sometimes, it’s spiritual. It’s accepting one of the crosses we have. It makes it easier to deal with. You see the things you still can do.”

Building hope and faith

The support team is the parish’s latest effort to make prayer a visible part of its outreach. Since 2012, St. John’s has had a prayer shawl ministry. As they knit the shawls, parishioners pray for the people who will eventually receive them—including people who are ill and who have lost a loved one.

The prayer support team also has another feature that makes Heerdink smile.

“If a prayer request involves healing, we hand out a list of ‘healing Scriptures.’ They’re promises of healing from God,” he says. “We suggest the person read two of these ‘Gos pills’ [Gospels] a day, just like a doctor asks you to take two pills a day. We know by reading the Scripture it gets into your heart and builds hope and faith. When you have hope, it helps you turn the corner.”

The prayer station has also helped the parish in its evangelization efforts.

“Parishioners’ neighbors ask for prayers in the book,” Heerdink says. “It’s extending St. John’s from where we are.”

Sawyer agrees: “Catholics sometimes aren’t really good at welcoming people. When visitors come in and see the prayer station and learn that prayers are being offered, it lets them see that people care about each other here. It shows a sense of community—that you’re welcome here, that we’re praying for you.” †

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