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The power of prayer: Among the St. Louis faithful, many say they’d be lost without it

Parishioners pray during a Sunday morning Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson on Nov. 19, 2017.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Parishioners pray during Sunday morning Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson.

In this week when many St. Louisans and others around the country gather for the Thanksgiving holiday, before they dive into the turkey and pumpkin pie, they will pray.

But why? Why does prayer remain so important to many people at a time when, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing?

It’s mostly because prayer is a given for people who follow almost any faith tradition, according to Shane Sharp, an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

“The vast majority of people (who pray) believe God answers prayers,” Sharp said. “Prayer is by far the most common religious practice. It’s private. You can do it anywhere.”

Citing Pew Research Center statistics from 2014, Sharp said 71 percent of Americans report praying at least once week. Fifty-five percent of people pray at least daily, he said.

“”It’s part of our evolutionary heritage,” Sharp said. “It’s ingrained in us. Without it, religions would disappear.”

Prayer is a key component of most faith groups.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Muslim life is the emphasis on daily ritual prayer. Ritual prayer, called salat, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Devout Muslims pray five times daily: before sunrise, mid-day , late afternoon, just after sunset and at night.

In Judaism, the faithful are expected to pray at least three times a day, said Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. While Jews, like others, may certainly pray wherever and whenever they choose, it is also important to attend worship services to be able to pray with others, Talve said.

“To be able to pray particular prayers, you should have a minimum of 10 prayers; you need to be in community to say those prayers. It means you are not alone when you are mourning,” or facing other challenges, she said.

“People who pray are acknowledging that the universe that is bigger than [themselves]. It lifts you up. It helps guide you to be a part of the solution,” she said.

Susan Gioia, of Webster Groves, is an Ignatian Catholic, following the teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, the 15th-century Spanish Basque priest and theologian, who founded the Jesuit religious order. In written responses to questions through the Public Insight Network, Gioia said she practices contemplative prayer and mindfulness.

She described this kind of prayer as “sitting and aligning your mind (and) body in such a way that you feel part of something bigger than yourself.”

For her, praying is “like brushing my teeth … If I don’t do it, I don’t feel right.”

In his research, Sharp, the associate professor of sociology, has focused on the psychological basis of religious beliefs and practices.

He said prayer is also important to people who identify among the “nones” — those who identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular”.

Joe Hainline of Kirkwood is one such “none.”

“I no longer hold evangelical Christian believes,” he said in written comments. But, he wrote, “I still pray occasionally. … I still pray for people to be healed, occasionally, although now, I look more for practical things I can do to help, as well.”

Even so, he continues to wonder what happens with all of his prayers.

“I would like to know if our prayers are heard by someone or something outside of ourselves, or it’s only part of our minds.”

Other praying people, like Kristi Mochow, of Cahokia, simply go on faith that their prayers are heard.

"I could not exist without my prayer life," Mochow wrote.

Mochow is an Episcopalian who was raised a Presbyterian.

"When I am able to be still and listen, I find that I receive guidance for my life," she wrote.

"It informs my faith journey. It is sometimes difficult to explain the power I sometimes feel when I am surrounded by people who are praying." 

Follow Linda on Twitter: @llockhart92

Inform our coverage

This report was prepared with help from our Public Insight Network. Click here to learn more about how you can be a part of our conversations. Click here to see more responses from PIN sources who helped inform this report.

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.