Praying for Strangers by River Jordan
Late in 2008, Ms. Jordan’s sons received deployment orders, one to Iraq, and the other to Afghanistan. Into the chaos of planning her perfect family Christmas zoomed a New Year’s resolution of praying for a stranger every day during 2009. Ms. Jordan filed the idea well behind the plethora of other ideas awaiting her writing attention, because she was unqualified for many reasons. Most crucial, her primary prayer focus would be her sons’ safety. She wore earplugs to ward off strangers, even if listening to silence. A radio producer, a prolific author, a wife, and a mother, Ms. Jordan was too busy. Away from the public eye, she was extremely private, especially about her spirituality. Finally, she wasn’t religious enough in the conventional sense.
Ms. Jordan’s single qualification explains why, as she dashed about planning Christmas, she noticed that so many people seemed to need prayer: I believe. In the innermost core of my being, I believe there is a great, mighty, and benevolent God who hears my prayers. Maybe, she finally conceded, directing a heartfelt prayer toward a stranger every day wouldn’t be such a burden.
On January 1, 2009, Ms. Jordan and her husband delivered his mother to the bus station. Scanning the crowds, she could not focus on any of the likely candidates. Gradually, she realized that she must be . . . sensitive to one significant, special person every day that Something Greater would point out to her. What? She was to tell the stranger that she was praying for them?
She focused on a woman at the ticket counter. Poised to dash and in a voice barely audible, Ms. Jordan explained her resolution. The woman hugged Ms. Jordan, exclaiming:
“Do you know what I was just saying to God this morning? Do you? I was just praying this morning and praying for other people, but I stopped and asked the Lord, “God, is there anybody in this whole wide world who is praying for me?”
So began Ms. Jordan’s year of praying for strangers. Each chapter gleams with the spiritual treasure of her lessons and rewards.
Most of the time, she agreed with the choices of Something Greater, as with Meredith and Ron. While filling her car at the station, she heard . . . one of those hacking, rattling, just won’t stop coughs no matter what you do. . . . As she helped fragile and elderly Meredith untangle the hose, Ms. Jordan pondered the . . . aged who are on their own. . . . I’m not sure this is the natural order of things. Raised in Florida, Ms. Jordan considered her obligation to visit every family member and friend on each vacation more frustrating than restful. In a grocery store late one night, she dashed by Ron telling him that he was her stranger for that day. “Thanks, I sure do need it,” he called after her. “Where do you go to church?” Returning to spend a few minutes with Ron, she saw that he looked . . . lonely, like a man who seems to be tired from more than working the late shift. Like a man who could use a friend or two. She encouraged Ron to visit the friendly, informal church that her friends attended, assuring him that he would be welcome. Abashed by her frustration about too many people to visit, Ms. Jordan realized that . . . there’s really no such thing as too many friends. But there is surely something as too few.
Often times, Something Greater’s idea of a stranger requiring prayer mystified Ms. Jordan. Trisha, beautiful and impeccably dressed, stood out because she had . . . that certain sort of panache some women have. Little Miss Perfection (Ms. Jordan’s snide observation), thanked her profusely for prayers because she was terrified about looking for a job. Recalling her own bewildering experiences with the job market, Ms. Jordan concluded that . . . the beautiful, yes, they too, have their stories and they’re not all glory. . . . How terribly prejudiced for me to perceive someone this way. Sharon, an efficient emergency room triage nurse surrounded by desperate patients, needed prayers because “My husband just had open-heart surgery,” . . . and then she leaves a lot of words unsaid and says so much more with tears in her eyes.
Ms. Jordan’s most painful lesson from Something Greater was that many people, even if not her stranger, needed connection. The woman preceding her in an express lane should have been in . . . a very, very long, slow lane. Her running commentary with the clerk included each item he scanned and packed, personal details, and life in general. Ms. Jordan’s groceries underway, the woman asked about stamps. The clerk explained that he must finish the current order; Ms. Jordan smoldered: Get out of the line–Stop distracting the cashier. The woman did exactly that, asking Ms. Jordan about a submarine sandwich in her order. Fuming, she dashed out the door to finish her errands until censured by the reality: God, she must have been so lonely. I was . . . as saintless and selfish as they come.
Finally, she learned that praying for strangers did not preclude involvement. Dining with her husband, Ms. Jordan exchanged meaningful glances with an elderly woman and her crippled husband. They departed before she approached them, but, as she and her husband, in separate cars, exited the parking lot, they noticed the couple seated at a bus stop. The busses long-since stopped, they gratefully accepted her offer for a ride—until noticing Titan, a 200-pound Great Pyrenees. Unable to convince them that Titan was merely welcoming them into his Jeep, Ms. Jordan called her husband who returned for the couple while she searched for a vacancy. Four motels later, Ms. Jordan found a vacancy. After confirming that they were checked in, Ms. Jordan and her husband headed home very late that night.
One aspect of her resolution that Ms. Jordan didn’t have to learn was how to pray for her strangers, because she prayed for abundant blessings in their current circumstances. For Meredith, a circle of caring friends and relatives like those surrounding her mother; for Ron, someone to . . . listen to his dried-up dreams until they can regain new life. For Trisha, courage and endurance until she found a job; for Sharon, . . . strength in this season as she battles fear and exhaustion, cares for people all day, and goes home to take care of her husband after serious surgery. For the lonely woman in the express lane, Ms. Jordan prayed . . . that she’d meet a better person than I am. For the couple at the bus stop, she asked for a network of kind assistance all the way home.
Praying for a stranger every day during 2009 reaped rewards that Ms. Jordan never anticipated. First, she didn’t cave in to fears about her sons; as she helped other people carry their burdens, her own lightened. After a lifetime of striving for holy solitude, Ms. Jordan realized that . . . she was born to lose herself in humanity. From having to pray, Ms. Jordan ascended to wanting to pray for her daily stranger, a practice she continues today. Gradually, she noted in the strangers’ eyes that her moments of sincere connection made their world a better place.
Ms. Jordan’s little book has the potential of mending our era’s social disconnection as we realize that so many people crave recognition. That said, you’re probably wondering, Reading Friends, if I’m praying for strangers everyday. NO, but when a clerk explained in great detail the results of Alka Plus on her stomach, I caught myself wondering why she thought I cared and listened with rapt attention. A few stores later, I smiled at a man grouching because the credit card machine wasn’t working and the lady in front of him had no cash. He was so surprised that he stopped grumbling for a few seconds and the no-cash lady turned around to see what happened. Not momentous changes, but more than I would have done before reading Praying for Strangers. I’ve always wondered what people meant about life-changing books, and now I know. Thank you, Ms. Jordan!
River Jordan is a . . . southerner with a global perspective. She began as a playwright and worked with the Loblolly Theater Group in Pensacola, Florida, for over ten years. An acclaimed Southern Gothic author, she published The Gin Girl (2003) her first novel and The Miracle of Mercy Land (2010) her latest.
Praying for Strangers is her first narrative non-fiction. Ms. Jordan travels the country speaking about The Power of the Story and produces and hosts Clearstory Radio in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives.