Missionaries to Harvard

James and Nicole stop the first person of the day in front of the Museum of Natural History.

James and Nicole stop the first person of the day in front of the Museum of Natural History.

“Hi,” James says to a young woman wearing a black jacket and walking quickly. “Me and my friends were just walking around campus praying...”

Even though she’s almost past him, James starts to ask how he can pray for her today.

She turns to give him a look of disgust and picks up her pace.

James shrugs. “We get rejected a lot.”

James is wearing a windbreaker and carrying a giant umbrella because it just stopped raining. A college pastor, he has also worked as a civil engineer since graduating from college in 2008.

Walking back through Old Yard, James gets a friendlier response. He approaches a student who’s clutching some papers and jogging in the direction of the Science Center. “How are you today?” James asks.

“I’m doing great, but I’m in a huge hurry,” the student says, smiling but barely breaking stride.

James turns to me and asks, “Are a lot of people in hurries?”

I tell him the student was probably on his way to turn in a problem set, but he’s right. Many people are walking too fast or too purposefully for him to catch their attention. Finally, they manage to stop someone. Behind Widener, James spots a young man wearing a cast. “Hey bro,” he calls out. The student stops, and James gives his pitch. Smiling, he agrees to let James and Nicole pray for his injury, but not while he’s there because he has to run off to a meeting.

“We believe in your power and ask you to heal, in Jesus’ name,” James prays as he leads us back into Tercentenary Theatre.

James and Nicole, who do “prayer walks” at Harvard on Friday mornings, asked that neither their real names nor the name of their church be used because they are concerned about potential ramifications for their relationship with the University. Their church, which runs “faith groups” at several local colleges, recently established one catering to Harvard students. In addition to the prayer walks, they hold fellowship meetings at Nicole’s apartment near campus. Nicole, who majored in athletic-training, is spending this year after graduation taking classes in preparation for going overseas as a missionary.

I first heard of James and Nicole’s group in August when a tall young man wearing a dress shirt and slacks stopped and offered to help me carry some gear back to the Outing Club. As we walked down Plympton Street, he told me he was on campus doing a prayer walk.

Until then, I had thought the only group doing prayer walks on campus was the Justice House of Prayer Boston. Since June I had been attending meetings for thesis research at their house in Central Square, established as a chapter of the national JHOP after Lou Engle held one of his The Call to Conscience rallies in Boston. Engle—an evangelical pastor considered a prophet, recently in the news for being the former roommate of Kansas Governor-elect Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), allegedly supporting Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, and likening Sarah Palin to the biblical Queen Esther during her vice presidential bid—founded JHOP after 40 days of prayer and fasting in Boston in March 2006. Engle and others in the prophetic movement identify New England, and Boston specifically, as a site ripe for religious revival, in the tradition of the First and Second Great Awakenings.

Last October Engle spoke at an event hosted by JHOP in the Student Organization Center at Hilles. In the spring, the International House of Prayer—a Kansas City ministry where Engle also sits on the board of directors and with which JHOP works closely—sent about 300 student missionaries from its IHOP University to campus as part of a broader New England outreach. For a few days, these students from IHOP—which was named as a defendant in a September 2010 lawsuit by the International House of Pancakes for trademark dilution and infringement—approached Harvard students, praying for healing and salvation.

When they returned to Kansas City, another IHOP director, Allen Hood, wrote on his blog that some of the students had met a basketball player on crutches, prayed for him, and watched him walk away without his crutches. “Soon, our IHOPU students were receiving phone calls from Christian students on campus: ‘The word is out all over campus that a basketball player was healed by those Jesus people who have invaded our school!’” Hood wrote.

As Brandyn T. Curry ’13 tells it, he was passing the John Harvard statue when a group of people stopped him and asked, “Can we pray for you?”

He was on crutches following a knee operation earlier that day, to fix a tear in his patella, an injury he says came from “normal wear and tear” playing point guard on the varsity basketball team. The doctors had told him to use the crutches for a week or two, and that it would take from four to six months to recover fully.

The missionaries from IHOP wanted to pray for his knee to heal. He agreed.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says.

They prayed, and then asked him to try walking without his crutches.

“I just felt good and I walked on it,” he says, adding that he didn’t use his crutches to walk away.

“I’m a strong believer in God,” he says, adding that he grew up in the Baptist church and is active in a Christian fellowship on campus, attending Harvard College Faith and Action’s Bible studies.

Curry’s take on the situation seems a little less dramatic than Hood’s. He describes feeling stronger when they prayed for him, and he says his recovery was shorter than expected, clocking in at just under four months. Curry says he reserved serious spiritual discussion of the event for fellow Christians, such as his mother. With others, he just talks about how his leg felt better and confirms that yes, it really happened.

But JHOP, whose permanent mission is to pray for Harvard, does not interact much with students or the campus. Darrell Temple, who directs JHOP Boston with his wife Bethany Yeo Temple, says the goal for Harvard is to “cover it in prayer.”

Darrell used to be a guitarist and vocalist for a Christian rock band called The End of Silence. In its heyday, they opened for big-name Christian contemporary acts such as Delirious and Newsboys. He maintains a garage-band aesthetic, constantly wearing Chuck Taylors and fitted T-shirts, and sipping a Rockstar energy drink. He still plays guitar and sings for the praise and worship music at JHOP’s Wednesday and Saturday “prayer watches.”

For Temple, “covering” a place in prayer seems to be an abstract—but in the context of a totally spiritualized world, not completely abstract—aim to pray ceaselessly. But while they believe prayer is important enough that the one requirement for living in JHOP’s upstairs apartments is to spend one hour alone each day in the prayer room, they also believe that, ultimately, only God can effect the change they pray for.

Missy, a member of James and Nicole’s church who asked that only her first name be used, offers a more literal take on “covering” Harvard in prayer. She says she used to take her shift praying for Harvard at 2 a.m. That way, she says, yawning and stretching as if she’s just waking up, students could start the day already covered in prayer.

Terms like “humanism” and “intellectualism” are often bandied at the “prayer watches,” often in the context of petitions for God to “break through the spirit of intellectualism.” JHOP’s website declares, “Harvard is considered the citadel of secular humanism in the modern world.”

“We are kind of just praying against that attitude that tries to suffocate the reality of there being a God,” Temple says. On their website and at meetings, people in JHOP frequently invoke Harvard’s religious roots as a justification for their mission.

Temple softens this idea, saying Harvard was founded as “a place where folks could be educated, not necessarily just in a secular society but also a Christian society, you know; not necessarily saying one’s better than the other and whatnot, but just that there could be room for both.”

Brian Lahoue, the pastor of The Awakening Harvard Square—a church Lahoue founded in 2009 that meets in the penthouse suite of an apartment on Brattle Street—says people all over the world pray for Harvard. “It’s no mystery, I think it’s the same reason so many people are trying to hire students from Harvard University,” he says. “There is an understanding that students who attend Harvard have the potential for greater influence than someone else who didn’t.”

Temple echoes this theme. “Just as so many leaders come out of Harvard, so many influential people come out of Harvard, so many people that write laws, so many people in Hollywood, just throughout all influential sectors of our culture, a lot of those people come from that college campus,” he says.

James explains that his group also hopes to take advantage of influence, though he is more explicit about framing it not as political influence but as “influence to lead people to Jesus.” But nearly every person I have met at JHOP as well as James and Nicole have mentioned Harvard’s Christian heritage in our first or second conversation. When I stopped by a Tuesday night meeting in Nicole’s apartment, she showed me a notebook she had painted with an intricate design of ivy twining over bricks and a Harvard seal, and told me about how she started researching Harvard’s history.

Darrell says a historian—he tells me the historian is a lawyer and a Christian but will not tell me his name—briefed the participants on the history of Harvard at the 40-day initiative to launch JHOP Boston.

Everyone tells me the story about Emerson Hall. When the philosophy building was being constructed in 1900, so the story goes, there was a heated debate about what to inscribe on the side. Supposedly, the architect, Guy Lowell, wanted “Man is the measure of all things.” The committee agreed, but University President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, apparently had something else in mind. When the cloth was torn down to unveil the inscription, there on the side of the building was a verse from the Bible, from Psalm 8, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

The people who tell me this usually mark Eliot’s last-minute decision to replace Pythagoras with the psalmist as one of Christianity’s last stands at Harvard. What they don’t mention is that Eliot was a Unitarian. They tell me that the official University seal includes three books, all of which are open face-up. Once upon a time, one of the books—a Bible—was facing down, to represent limits to mortal knowledge.

Unlike the group James and Nicole lead, JHOP focuses more on praying for the institution than interacting with students. Temple says that though one of the things they pray for is the salvation of students, and that Christians who have fallen away from the faith will return, they have never tried to evangelize students.

“The idea was to really just pinpoint it in prayer, not to do anything more than that,” he says.

JHOP is funded largely by donations and employs several full-time and part-time intercessory missionaries—usually young adults—who live at the house in Central Square and spend time praying and studying the Bible as well as doing administrative work. Over the summer, Will, one of JHOP’s two full-time staff members who live at the house and who asked that only his first name be used, led weekly prayer walks at Harvard on Thursday afternoons. At various points since its founding, JHOP’s prayer walks have taken on different forms and frequencies, but they’ve always stayed mostly outside the gates.

Originally from New Hampshire, Will is 20 years old and a talented violinist and pianist. He’s perpetually brushing his long blond hair out of his face, except when he ties a bandana or a leather cord around his head. He’s thin, and seems thinner because I know he fasts a lot. He wears a red rubber anti-abortion “Life” bracelet and somehow sounds both intense and a bit dazed as he describes prophetic dreams he’s had, or an experience where he prayed for 12 hours and then had non-stop visions, as if he were “plugged into a fiber-optic main-Oframe of pretty much everything that’s going on in the world.” Among his duties are playing keyboard and drums at the prayer watches, maintaining JHOP Boston’s website, and leading the prayer walks at Harvard.

On a typical Thursday, Will arrived at Out of Town News at noon and waited for others who might be joining him. Sometimes with other staff, and sometimes alone, he would lead a slow, silent stroll around the brick path outside the Yard’s gates, ending at the side steps of Emerson Hall. There, the walkers would sit and quietly pray, in English and in tongues. Once the sound of a jackhammer at the Fogg Museum pushed Will to relocate to the steps of Widener Library.

In September, JHOP’s prayer walk schedule changed. Now they skip the walk and just meet on Emerson’s steps at 1 p.m. most weekdays. Sometimes Will sits on the steps alone with his bike for about 20 minutes, and sometimes another staff member joins him.

Will says no one has ever asked him what he’s doing when he’s prayer-walking or sitting on Emerson’s steps, though occasionally others are sitting on the steps of Emerson when he gets there.

“Other than walking the campus, walking around the circle of the campus, and then walking through the campus and praying under our breath or whatever; that was the extent of what we were to do,” Temple says. “Our ministry was before God and unto God, and that was, and still is, in a way, the reality that we’re trying to live in.”

On the Friday morning I tag along with James and Nicole, we meet at Au Bon Pain at 11 a.m. Missy’s there too, with a young woman from Texas she just met who is now staying with her while she’s in the city. Before we start, James and the others pray, asking God to show them whom to talk to or where to go. They do, and Missy shares first. “I got a picture of a lion,” she says, interpreting this to stand for courage. “I also got a picture of someone smoking outside the science building.”

Nicole says she saw a green tree but doesn’t spend time analyzing the image.

“Mine was really random,” James says. “I got a picture of a kangaroo.”

With that, we start for the Yard. Missy and her friend split off, and I go with Nicole and James. As we cut across on the path in front of Grays, James prays for God to open students’ hearts. We pass in between Weld and University Hall, and I notice something on top of one of those posts that deter cars and bikes. I drop behind so I can look closer. It is a tiny pink plastic kangaroo.

My first thought is that James planted it, but neither he nor Nicole stop. They don’t seem to have seen it.

When we wind around behind Canaday, Nicole remarks that a student who attends the Tuesday night meetings at her apartment lives there. They pray for her by name, and then generally for students who live in Canaday.

“God, we pray for those who are depressed and are suicidal,” James says as we walk toward Northwest Labs, just loud enough that the people passing on the sidewalk are bound to overhear. Near the museum, James unsuccessfully tries to stop the woman in the black jacket.

We walk past the Science Center, but there are no smokers in sight. It occurs to me that James may have seen the plastic kangaroo and registered it only subliminally. I ask him about the route he took to get to Au Bon Pain, to see if he walked the Yard, but he says he walked down Harvard Street and Mass Ave.

“Hey, Jesus loves you,” Missy shouts as she and her friend pass by on the opposite side of the triangle formed by the paths in front of Weld. We meet the student with the cast, and as we round the corner of Widener, they pray for him to be healed.

From here I can see the silhouette of the kangaroo figurine. But we head toward the Science Center again (still no smokers), and circling back James stops a young man wearing Harvard gear in front of Hollis and asks if he can pray for him.

“I’m good, thanks,” he says, shaking James’s outstretched hand.

“What’s your name?” James asks.

“I’m good,” he says, walking quickly away.

“I’m good,” James echoes, laughing and marveling that the kid wouldn’t give his name. “It was funny, because he held onto my hand,” he says.

Memorial Church’s bells start ringing for noon. Twenty minutes until we have to meet Missy and her friend. We start heading in what might be a path toward Weld. But we go around the other side. There’s a smartly dressed man sitting on a little cement block next to the library. He’s got a leather pouch and a bag of loose tobacco, and he’s holding a cigarette.

James introduces himself and explains what he and Nicole are doing. I miss the opportunity to introduce myself, and I stand off to the side, silently taking notes, while this man—who attended an evangelical college but conspicuously does not say anything about his beliefs—talks with James and Nicole about his Christian relatives, including the brother-in-law he’s visiting at Harvard, and his plans to open a bar. While James prays aloud for the brother-in-law to find community and for the man’s business venture to succeed, the man bows his head but instead of folding his hands, he twists his fingers, and lets his shrinking cigarette drop to the ground.

When they’ve finished, James hands him a card with his church’s schedule and his own contact info and tells him to have his brother-in-law be in touch.

Once again we walk into Tercentenary. We’re getting down to the wire. If James is going to lead us over to the kangaroo, he’d better do it soon. But we just do one last small circle and head back to Au Bon Pain.

Missy and her friend are waiting for us, excited to tell us how they found the woman in the red jacket and the red hat they were looking for. I had forgotten this particular vision. “We saw a lot of smokers outside the Science Center,” Missy says. James talks about the boy with the cast and the man visiting his brother-in-law. I ask if they saw the kangaroo. They think it’s cool, but not a big deal. I appreciate that they don’t try to use this as evidence for anything.

I say good-bye and return, alone, to the post by Weld, but the kangaroo is gone.

A few hours after the prayer walk I see the freshman with the cast again and ask him why he talked to Nicole and James. “I would like to give people the time of day,” says the student, who doesn’t want to be identified by name. But he says the practice of approaching strangers to pray people seems inherently uncomfortable.

“It puts people in an awkward situation,” he says, adding that he’s Catholic. “I think the intention’s good.”

Just to check, I ask whether he’s ever seen people prayer-walking at Harvard before. He hasn’t.

A student who lives at JHOP while studying in a Ph.D. program at Harvard, who asked not to be identified by name, says she frames what she’s praying for differently than do others at JHOP who aren’t also enmeshed in the University.

She says she felt “spiritually depressed” when she visited Harvard after being accepted to her Ph.D. program. “I was walking around Harvard Square crying,” she says. “Spiritually, I was like, ‘I hate this place. I don’t know why.’”

Three years ago, she moved into one of JHOP’s upstairs rooms that at the time were rented out as Christian community living, and joined the staff as a part-time member. Eventually she had a better understanding of her initial sense that Harvard was a sad and cutthroat place. She says that in academia, and to some extent the world in general, “there’s two factors by which people are measured: are you smart enough, and do you work hard enough?”

“Not only have I seen God free me,” she says, “I desire those same things for people who are stressed out at school and are always paranoid about everything.”

While others at JHOP might talk about Harvard in tactical terms, or call it “a stronghold of humanism,” she thinks of her personal experience.

“That is why I pray,” she says. “I don’t want people to live under that depression or that kind of burden.”

A few weeks after attending one of JHOP’s prayer watches for the first time, I sit down with Will at Starbucks on Church Street after a Thursday prayer walk. He tells me about how, before he ever saw the house on Western Avenue, where its porch columns distinguish it from the others on the street, he had a dream where he saw a house that looked like “a tiny little Supreme Court.”

He tells me about his favorite part of his job at JHOP, the monthly “Silent Siege” on the steps of Boston’s John Adams Courthouse, where participants stand for two hours with red tape over their mouths to pray and protest against abortion.

“I don’t know what it is about standing in front of a place with tape on your mouth,” he says with a laugh, adding later, “You must think we’re completely weird.”

I ask him what it would look like if the Christian revival JHOP was praying for happened. He agrees “revival” is a hard concept to define, and possibly just as difficult to recognize. He says students’ priorities would shift; for instance, they would not value entertainment so highly.

But, he says, one Christian Harvard professor says he’s seen more people come to Christ in the last four years—since JHOP’s been around—than in the last 20. I ask him who the professor was. He says he doesn’t know his name, but if he did it wouldn’t be his place to tell me.

“In the intellectualism of our day, we think that man has all the power to solve the problems of the world,” Lahoue says. “And since these intellectual ideas so often sound good—and it’s not that they’re bad, they are good—but without the love for the person, without the compassion, and without understanding what the right tool is, which is this hope I believe that Jesus describes clearly, unequivocally, in the gospels, it’s a frustrated effort.”

Lahoue, a businessman as well as a pastor, originally called his church the Harvard Awakening until the University told him to change the name. Unaffiliated with the University, Lahoue and his church conduct outreaches in Harvard Square, setting up a table rather than approaching people. The Awakening Harvard Square has co-hosted events with several of the College’s Christian fellowships and taken out ads on the shuttles, but Lahoue is quick to point out that despite Harvard’s appeal as an influential place with Christian roots, even without those factors, “It would still be my aim to pray for Harvard as a university—as a place—that molds the minds of young people.”

Even though many of the Harvard-related prayers at JHOP prayer meetings—and much of what they pray for is not related to Harvard—take aim at broad ideas such as humanism, or the history of the Universtiy, on their own, Will and Temple both stress a more individualized mission.

Temple estimates he has talked with or prayed with about 60 Harvard students and affiliates. His wife, whom Engle personally reached out to as a “spiritual daughter” to lead JHOP Boston, has met with Harvard chaplains.

At a prayer meeting around the time of freshman move-in, he describes sitting at Boloco, eating a burrito and watching the crowds of students who had arrived that day. He says he spotted a young man stumbling along, struggling to move his belongings to his new apartment. Temple stopped and offered to help the student, who turned out to be an atheist. “I shared Jesus,” Temple says, calling on the others at JHOP to do the same. Later in the meeting, they pray for the atheist by name.

The prayers gradually become more specific; “God, would you release salvation on the hearts of men at Harvard,” leads to “Would you break into atheists’ dreams, God?”

“Father, I cry out for Greg,” Temple says, “That you would multiply the seed that I sowed in his heart. Would you come to him?”

A few months after our Starbucks conversation, I’m reminded of Will’s question, when he asked me if I think they’re completely weird. A few minutes before a Saturday night prayer meeting staff members have come downstairs, and guests are trickling in. Everyone is lounging in the prayer room’s comfortable earth-tone furniture, and the TV, which is usually tuned to a live stream of IHOP’s prayer room, is off. Everyone seems to be in a really good mood. Will is trying to zip his gray hoodie over his face.

Temple has just realized he can’t find his car keys. The other staff and guests call out suggestions while he searches the prayer room and the adjacent kitchen. The part-time staffer tells him God had given her a vision that the keys were still in the trunk. She says it like she’s kidding, but she’s not, not really. Temple insists that he already checked, but when he can’t find them anywhere inside, he goes out again. A moment later he comes back, holding the keys. The part-time staffer grins.

“The Lord speaks to me,” she shrugs.

It’s tempting to be a little amazed, but by now I expect this sort of thing. The prophets joke about being prophets.

“You said they were in the trunk,” Temple protests, explaining that he’d found them stuck in the front door of his car.

The staffer shrugs and explains that her vision had been of the keys in a keyhole. She has automatically interpreted the metal surrounding the keyhole as the trunk. There’s a regular attendee with a scraggly orange beard and combat boots. I’ve almost never heard him say anything, but now he offers what sounds like a rule he’s learned by heart, a basic principle in dealing with prophetic visions: “You gotta say what you see.”