While most Americans have put faith in using conservation and alternative energy sources, a few have decided to call on a higher power.
Praying for answers at the pump
WASHINGTON // While US residents drive less and politicians extol alternative fuels, members of one church in the capital are seeking salvation from high gas prices in the only way they know how - through prayer. Members of the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists, nestled in the working class Petworth neighbourhood, began praying at inner-city petrol stations in April. They hold hands and even sing We Shall Overcome, the civil rights anthem, as motorists pull in and begrudgingly fill their tanks with some of the most expensive fuel in US history. "We pray for everything else," said Mark McCleary, the church's pastor, who has led several of the pump-side prayers. "If you're affected by gas prices, why not pray about it?" So far it has been a mixed blessing. Petrol prices across the country were down 43 cents on Wednesday from a record high average, posted in July, of US$4.11 (Dh15.09) per gallon, but they still were up 15 cents since the praying began on April 23, according to the American Automobile Association's fuel gauge report, which tracks daily petrol prices. Unfazed, the pastor proclaims that the recent easing of prices shows that their prayers have been answered. "Who can dispute it? We prayed, and the prices are going down," said Mr McCleary, who drives a 1985 Mercedes sedan that runs on pricey diesel and costs $65 to fill. "Matter of fact we ought to have a prayer of thanksgiving." But not everyone is sure about the power of the activists' prayer. Jonathan Cogan, an energy information specialist with the Energy Information Administration, prefers to explain the recent drop in market terms, not religious ones. He said the exorbitant prices of crude oil - the raw material from which gasoline is made and upon which the price of fuel depends - have led to a decline in demand and driven prices lower. Mr Cogan said a variety of factors could cause prices to climb again. "There is no guarantee at which level prices will settle," he said. To that, Mr McCleary, who said he has not been out to pray at the pumps in a month, has a ready response: "If [the prices] go back up, we'll probably go pray again." The "Pray at the Pump" movement, as it is now called, was started by Rocky Twyman, a community organiser and public relations consultant from Maryland who has a history of headline-grabbing activism that has met with varying degrees of success. In 2006, he launched the "Oprah for Nobel Peace Prize Movement", a group intent on landing talk show icon Oprah Winfrey the world's most prestigious humanitarian award. It did not work: that year the prize went to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi microfinancier. Mr Twyman's greater achievement by far has been a campaign to get black men to register as bone marrow donors, work for which he has won numerous awards, including from Robert Ehrlich when he was governor of Maryland. Mr Twyman was not available for an interview, but he told The Washington Post in May that asking God for more affordable petrol was as important as asking politicians. "There may not be an instant solution, but [we believe] that prayer with activism will make a change," Mr Twyman said. "We're going to continue to pursue this until the people that own these gas stations realise how serious this problem is." And pursue it he has. Mr Twyman has taken his cause on a nationwide tour, with stops as far away as California and Missouri and newspaper reporters in tow at every turn. Even Jay Leno, a national late-night talk-show host, mentioned the movement in one of his opening monologues. "Hey, have you heard about this group called Prayer at the Pump?" Leno asked the audience in July. "They're a prayer group that sprang up, and they go to gas stations, and they hold hands, and they pray for lower gas prices. Otherwise known as the Bush energy plan." Although Leno and many others take the matter less than seriously, for Di-Anne Walker, 53, who was filling up her minivan last week at the Washington petrol station where the prayers began, this is no joke. "I believe in them coming here and praying ... nobody can do it but God," said Ms Walker as she pumped $15 worth of petrol - about four gallons - into her minivan, which she could not afford to fill. "That is the whole purpose of believing and trusting in the Lord, because if you believe, good things will happen." Colleen McDannell, a religious scholar at the University of Utah and author of Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, said people of all faiths ask God for things they need. "That kind of petitioning is ancient; it's in the Bible everywhere," said Ms McDannell, noting that American football players often kneel together on the field before big games. "Religion is all about asking for things." "What is unusual about this is that they are doing it in a public space," she added, noting that they could have just as easily prayed for lower prices at home or in the church's sanctuary. "They are also trying to draw attention to their religion. They want to stress the intimacy of Christianity, that it's a practical religion; it is not an abstract thing with God and the church. "It is as much about their religion as it is the price of gas," she suggested. Church members are sensitive to the idea that some see the prayers as a publicity stunt. Most say they are weary of the media attention and insist they just pray a lot, even when nobody's looking. "I pray for my family, I pray for my church family, I pray for any extended family, and I pray for the nation," said Mary Fraser-Foster, who works in the church's soup kitchen. "I pray for just about everything." Mr McCleary also said that most things in life are worth praying for, from prices at the pump to the presidential election - no matter who wins. "I think the right person is Obama, so, yeah I'll pray for him," he said. "If by chance McCain gets in, I'm gonna pray for him, too." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org