Tuesday, April 5, 2011

River Jordan's Praying for Strangers Reveals Uncomfortable Blessings

River Jordan is an accomplished writer. Her novels have been praised by media sources (Publishers Weekly, Southern Living, and the Tampa Tribune)  and also by some of my favorite authors (Silas House, Joshilyn Jackson, and Susan Gregg Gilmore). With the release of her new book, however, Jordan strayed from the "safe" path of fiction writing and delved into more personal writing.

Praying for Strangers is a compilation of sorts; there is little plot, and Jordan herself is the only true "main" character. Jordan was forced, in putting these words on paper, to leave behind her self-professed storytelling strengths and tell only true stories. Most are no more than two or three pages long. Despite her being outside her writing comfort zone, Jordan has managed to write a beautiful book that I have been pushing at people for weeks.

In Praying for Strangers, River Jordan tells the tale of one year in her life -- perhaps the most difficult year of her life. In this year, both of her sons were deployed: one to Iraq, one to Afghanistan. It is mind-boggling to wrap one's head around how she managed to simply survive that year. The experience must have been an excruciating one, fraught with sleepless nights and mind-racing worries. In spite of this emotional turmoil -- or perhaps because of it -- Jordan managed to do a single thing during this year. She prayed for strangers.

It began as a New Year's resolution, promises made to self that Jordan admits she rarely keeps. But for some reason, in this particular year, with her sons in harm's way and out of her ability to protect them, Jordan managed to keep this resolution. She prayed for people she met at the supermarket. She prayed for people she met waiting in line to pay a bill. She prayed for construction workers she passed. And for the most part, not only did she pray for them, but she also told them about it.

Now, if you stop to think about this, it seems an impossible task. How many people would appreciate a stranger accosting them in a parking lot, telling them she would be praying for them? In that scenario, my first thought would probably be to back away slowly and then high-tail it out of there. The people who Jordan met each day did exactly the opposite. They spilled their guts; they got teary-eyed; they hugged her. Some even prayed for Jordan.

Praying for Strangers was less about prayer, in the end, and more about human kindness. The act of a stranger telling you they will be praying for you turns your day around, no matter the prayer. Jordan brought her resolution to people of all creeds, colors, religions, and economic statuses, and every single one thanked her.

The changes to Jordan's own life were perhaps the most miraculous. She prayed for candidates on both sides of the aisle during the 2008 presidential campaign, and a change occurred inside of her: "[M]y amazing discovery is that the longer you pray for someone, the more you lose that crust of ambivalence, that twinge of not liking them. Those things fall away, and instead sometimes there's just a flash . . . that if that person walked through the door, I'd be pleased to meed them in that moment. Somewhere in that slice of time I spent praying . . . I became less frustrated by their presence" (210).

Jordan also found people who she needed as much as they needed her prayers. At a rest stop, she met a woman who was humming along happily, seemingly in need of nothing. Still, it struck Jordan that she was "the one" for the day, and before long this happened:
"Anything special that you need prayer for?"
     She nods yes as tears well up in her eyes. "My son died two months ago."
     This struck close to home with me, the safety of my sons somewhat being a catalyst for this resolution. So I break my policy about public praying. Right there, in the  middle of that rest stop, I wrap my arms around her and whisper a prayer for her broken heart. One mother to another. (188)
The true message of the book is, as I said before, less about prayer itself and more about caring for other humans. We all pass hundreds of strangers each day, week, month, and year, usually ignoring them as a whole. Jordan accomplished something extraordinary in her year of praying for strangers: she noticed them. She connected with them. She says near the end of the book: "It was one of those days again. For what felt like the three-hundredth time, I decided I just wasn't going to tell anyone that I was praying for them. It goes against my nature. It takes courage. It takes time; all those blessed interferences take me away from other obligations and pursuits. It takes some kind of faith to believe that my prayers might matter to a stranger. The bottom line -- it takes. But it also gives."

River Jordan is the author of four previous novels. She hosts a weekly radio show called Clearstory Radio on Nashville channel 107.1 FM. The Friday morning show features author interviews and other book news, as well as some discussion of music. During the past month Jordan has interviewed both songwriter-turned-author Marshall Chapman and Nashville mystery writer J. T. Ellison.

This week kicks off a lengthy book tour for Jordan. She begins in Nashville tomorrow night and winds her way to Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and beyond. Check listings on her website for a stop near you. She will be back at the Southern Festival of Books this fall; I will be sure to see her there.

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