Image via The Noun Project

“Would you like a prayer?”

Many Princeton students have received this invitation amidst the bustle of ping pong tables and the chatter of Late Meal. It can sometimes seem like a daunting question, and oftentimes an awkward one to refuse. Who are the people offering to pray for fellow students? Are the prayers collected and shared with other members of the fellowship? In what context are these prayers invoked and with what implications? These questions culminate in confusion or many people who pass by the tables: are these prayers simply offerings of goodwill or do they point to an agenda of conversion?

We sat down with Jessica Fan, Soonho Kwon, and James Martin, all members of Christian fellowship groups on campus, who were eager to share their experiences manning the prayer tables in Frist.

Many people have the misconception that the prayers they place in the cardboard boxes will be addressed by the fellowship group collectively. However, according to Soonho, the individual at the table when you place your prayer in the box is the person who, as an individual, will pray for you throughout the week. The context and implications associated with your individual prayer are therefore wrapped up in the volunteer’s personal faith and practice. Engaging in a one-on-one conversation might shed light on how your prayer is interpreted.

Prayer table has existed in Frist since 2010, when members of Manna, the Christian Fellowship group, decided to share their gift of prayer with students during evening hours. Since then, it has grown to incorporate students from PFA and Princeton Evangelical Fellowship and is a consistent presence in Frist every weeknight from 8-10pm.

We asked how they would describe the prayer tables to a passerby.

James said, “the purpose of prayer table is to reach out to people during late meal hours to show love and care for them. God really cares about their individual needs, their joys and their struggles. We can intercede for other people and give our time to care for other people.”

We were also curious what a peak night looked for the ones manning the booths.

Jessica responded by saying, “when someone comes and sits for a while, and we can talk more deeply about something, that’s a peak night.” In turn, there are many nights when those manning the table might face a large amount of rejection.  James spoke to this relatively common occurrence by saying, “my reaction is to hold on because first and foremost I wasn’t doing this for me, so if I get rejected, […] it’s a very self-centered mindset to be focused on the fact that, oh shoot, my feelings are now hurt, that this person doesn’t appreciate me. If it’s truly about caring for the other person, and if they do reject you, sometimes it can hurt, but it’s like, you know what? I’ll pray for you anyways.  I’m still going to reach out because it’s about you, and caring for you.”

While for some students the instinct is to welcome the prayers—despite their being offered in one faith’s context—others find the prayer table objectionable. A first-year student we interviewed who identifies as an atheist explained somewhat reluctantly why she took issue with the prayer booths: “I guess it’s something to do with the idea that I need their prayers to do well or get where I want, especially if I’m not praying for it myself.”

It seems to this first-year that this sentiment has the implicit assumption that students “need to be saved by God’s power.” She says, “I just disagree that that is the case, and it irritates me that the prayer booths are located in a place so central to student life, right there in Frist. It seems that the tables imply I need something extra to help me, regardless of how it is intended, like I can’t determine it for myself as far as possible.”

Some secular students, however, embrace the tables as a positive force in a public space. We wanted to ask the members of the Christian fellowship groups if they used ‘new-agey-feel-good’ activism, as seen in free-hug demonstrations for example, to appeal to this demographic of the Princeton community.

We wondered if the Christian fellowship members running the booths would use non-religious language to describe the way they pray for the student’s needs, like sending out ‘good vibes’, or if they are also praying that students accept a God into their lives.

Jessica thinks there’s a little bit of both at play. “Most of the time,” she comments, “we pray for people with respect to their health or anxieties. But I do sometimes pray that God will be with that person, or reveal His presence to them, or comfort them. As Christians, we do believe that God is working, so when we pray we ask if God will work in their life.”

When it comes to praying for secular students in spite of their faith, James said that he “would never use the words ‘in spite of,’ but rather ‘in light of.’ We were interested to see how many students who aren’t Christian write prayers for the prayer table.” According to Soonho, the prayer table was actually “developed for non-Christians, because [those behind the prayer table] believe that whether you’re Christian or not, if you pray to God he listens.” He then went on to say that he is “not trying to force people to pray, or be Christian” because “God still loves them either way.” James also commented that “There are people who distinctly say ‘I’m not Christian or ‘I’m not religious’ and will ask us to pray for them.” He thinks that these people are above all curious. “I mean what’s the worst that can happen?” he asks. “[They might think] I don’t know if this God they’re praying to is real or not, but at least this person really does care about me.”

We were interested in asking if they pray that people discover faith in their lives.

James replied: “I do. I believe that I have to, if I really believe this Christian thing is real, then I would have to believe that God is real… part of caring for other people is wanting the best for everyone. So if I didn’t think that way then I really don’t believe what I believe or if I really do believe what I believe I really don’t love people. Because if I really didn’t believe that God was the best thing then I’d just be like nah man don’t worry about it, you’re good. And then again that’s selfish on my part.”

Jessica had a similar response: “It’s not our job to save people, and we recognize that, and I think that’s something important for us to remember, but we are fulfilling what we think God has called us to do in terms of being in His presence and showing God’s love… but the idea of us aggressively shoving it down people’s throats is definitely not what we’re going for. And at that point leave it up to God, and it is His choice whether he will work with them or not.”

Lastly, we asked about how they viewed the future of their prayer table on campus. Do they have any hopes on how to expand prayer booth or do they think it’s functioning as effectively as it can in its scope today?

James responded humbly, “In some ways I feel like prayer booth is always gonna be this low-key, awkward thing. I never want it to become a super big entity because then you lose the kind of grassroots personal feel of it, and I always want to maintain that and just to let people on campus know that there are people who do care.”