Prayer changes things. Pray on it. Lift me up in prayer. Stay prayed up.
Such expressions about the power of prayer in everyday life are a readily understood shorthand in many parts of Black America. They are a form of reassurance and a testament to the belief that Christ still performs miracles.
Praying has long been an African American coping mechanism. It’s both religion and social connection in a society that often feels hostile. As Harriet Tubman put it: “I said to the Lord, ‘I’m going to hold steady on to you, and I know you will see me through.’”
These days, it’s not unusual to receive a text or email that asks relatives and close friends — the “prayer warriors” — to rally on bended knee. To judge is what you don’t do. You are to respond with empathy to the plea for emotional help and understanding. Because it could always be you.
Prayer, many adherents recognize, is not the only response to pain. “Jesus & Therapy” is now a popular slogan on T-shirts, for one thing. But prayer — even in fast-paced, high-tech 2023 — is still viewed as one of the best options in a time of trouble.
A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that Black Americans are more religious than the American public as a whole. For example, “they are more likely to say they believe in God or a higher power, and to report that they attend religious services regularly. They also are more likely to say religion is ‘very important’ in their lives and to be affiliated with a religion, and to believe prayers to ancestors have protective power and that evil spirits can cause problems in a person’s life.”
For many African Americans, there always seems to be something in your way or in that of your extended family. The constant hunt for safe, affordable child care. A place to stay because a relationship suddenly went south. Juggling jobs for one livable wage. Fury over justice system atrocities, as an old saying goes, that appear to target “just us.”
Certain problems, such as taking on debt you know you can’t afford just to project a certain image, are indeed self-inflicted. From “bling bling” to broke. See: misguided choices. Health challenges also seem ever-present. (Many family cookouts now include meatless options and more salad greens, mindful of battles with high blood pressure and diabetes.) Or perhaps tough circumstances have not changed despite years of earnest attempts.
Rarely is there valuable land in the family for 60 years or more to leverage or pass down. Generational wealth from such assets, or from family businesses that received lines of credit to expand, is hard to come by. It often made more sense to join the labor force immediately after high school, in service industry jobs, because the family needed extra money or there were new mouths to feed.
Some are the first to have achieved in ways that left “plenty money” in the bank or resulted in middle-class problems, like keeping the lawn green. Or they’re among the few relatives who broke through socioeconomically, defying what author Isabel Wilkerson calls racial caste American-style.
Whatever the case, the power of prayer is rarely questioned. Ironically, many are only occasional churchgoers, if they go at all. But if you’re in the same place when the request goes out, you hold the hand of Auntie, Ma, Unc, or your cousin. You bow your head, close your eyes. You listen to the person praying, or call on Jesus yourself mid-prayer to emphasize a point. And you mean it.
In that moment, no one cares about your outfit, grammar, academic degrees, or the size of your mortgage. Everyone’s together in the struggle.
No one thinks that’s the end of it, though — whether it was a group prayer in person or a digital cry for help.
Anyone who asks for help in prayer knows that their loved ones may follow up with pointed questions the next time.
Did you apply?
Did you open a new account?
Did you call the doctor?
Did you stop going over to his house?
Did you talk with the company and ask for more time?
Prayer makes a difference. But there’s also no doubt among these believers that it’s only the first step to meaningful change.
V.M. Vines is an occasional freelance writer based in Bowie, Md.