Down the midway, yards from the Ferris wheel and the cotton-candy stand at the Howard County Fair, Greg Walker shut his eyes and prayed that the impending MRI results for Steve Benko's mother will be negative.
Emily Paterakis of Hunt Valley asked that Walker pray for her two sons, especially Ryan, who is climbing an Oregon mountain.
"Praise God they have this here," she said. "Prayers are the only thing I have faith in that work in this world."
Walker was one of 42 volunteers from 10 county churches who have manned a Christian prayer booth during the eight-day fair in West Friendship.
As people entered the fairgrounds and passed the white tent of the "May We Pray With You?" booth, Walker and fellow volunteer Walter Veasel stepped forward and asked, "Can we pray with you for anything today?"
Like dozens of fairgoers, Benko and Paterakis eagerly filled out the prayer request cards.
"It gives people peace of mind," said Benko, 17, of Carroll County, who stood alongside Walker as the volunteer prayed for his mother.
This is the prayer booth's second year, open from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow.
Organizer Dave Barkley, a congregant of New Heritage Church in Ellicott City, said the booth "gets the church out into the community."
The prayer booth is sponsored by Howard County Pray, a 3-year-old lay group that prays weekly at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, and OneVoice. Formerly called Pastors Pray, OneVoice includes about 60 county pastors and several laymen who pray weekly at Calvary Community Ministry Center in Columbia for the needs of the county, local churches and pastors.
`A firm believer'
Barkley, with other Howard County Pray leaders, approached OneVoice for its endorsement of the prayer booth and to finance its $450 rental and literature costs after he saw a video about a Christian man who set up a prayer booth on New York City streets.
"I'm a firm believer in prayer, that it does help people and change things and bring the power of God into people's circumstances," said OneVoice member Clarence Byerly, pastor of Rolling Hills Baptist Church, who manned the booth yesterday. "People don't have to tell us what the issues are. We're there as a service to comfort them."
About 240 fairgoers stopped by last year with prayer requests. The number Wednesday was about half that, Barkley said.
Fairgoers have the option of leaving prayer-request cards or praying with volunteers for a few minutes. "We want them to know God answers prayer," said Veasel, 77, a retired Ellicott City teacher and pastor, who serves on the church relation committee of Habitat for Humanity. "If they want to talk, one of us will talk with them."
But volunteers do not solicit funds or converts.
"We don't ask them to join anything or give any money," Barkley said. "We don't take any donations. We're not there to make money. We're there to bless people."
Help from afar
Volunteers included four New Zealand members of the international Youth With a Mission group and seven congregants from St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Lisbon.
"I like that it's multidenominational," said Benko, who is Roman Catholic. "Otherwise, I would have walked away."
Competing with the nearby pony rides, Whirl-A-Twirl and Capt. Duck's Seafood wagon, the prayer booth drew a woman who prayed for the custody of her children and another for world peace. One man stopped to pray for his son, whose hand was bitten by a dog. Sandy D'Angelo, an Arbutus hospital worker who is diabetic, prayed for health.
But most fairgoers, surprised by the booth, declined to participate. "I think it's inappropriate," said Dann Cross, 50, of Ellicott City. "Religious beliefs should be in church. You're at the fair to be entertained. It's not a place to be comforted by the church. I don't think politicians belong here, either. You come here to relax and enjoy yourself."
But Steve Green, associate pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church, said the booth provides a choice. "If they don't want us to pray for them, then we'll say thanks," said Green, who will operate the booth tonight with four congregants. "But if we weren't there, they wouldn't have that chance. Some needs you have when you go to the fair are the same needs you have when you go to church."