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Prayer Furnace stokes inner peace

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With a busy home life caring for four young children, Patty-Jean St. Hilaire looks for an hour or two a week to stoke her inner fire with a little quiet time with God.

For most of the past seven years, she jumps out of bed early once a week and into an East Kildonan around-the-clock prayer furnace, about 15 minutes from her North End home.

"In the Christian life, prayer and meditation is very important. I want to be doing it every day," says St. Hilaire, 35, one of about 100 volunteers at the Pegwatch Prayer Furnace at 861 Panet Rd.

"It's hard to get into a space (at home) where you don't have distractions."

On Tuesday, Pegwatch Prayer Furnace marks seven years of around-the-clock prayer, a date founders Jonathan and Carolyn Mutch didn't deliberately choose when planning Winnipeg's first prayer furnace.

Ignited by what they witnessed at similar nonstop prayer centres in Kansas City and Jerusalem, the East Kildonan couple proposed to fire up one in their hometown, just as a group of Winnipeggers was praying for the same thing.

The couple began modestly, putting up temporary walls in a corner of the gym and worship space at their church, Gateway Christian Community, and invited others to join them for eight hours of prayer once a week.

"Jonathan wanted it to go for a week. I want it to go forever," recalls Carolyn, 60.

"We don't have the resources to perpetuate it," adds Jonathon, 62, of what is now a full-time ministry for the couple, who are paid a modest stipend.

"It's unsustainable as an organization, but it's our understanding the one we're praying to has sustained it."

Early on, the nonstop prayer chain moved from the church gym to a modest bungalow at a corner of the church parking lot. Volunteers from about a dozen churches take on shifts in one-hour increments, devoting their time to pray or sing in the living room, create artwork from the supplies of paper, paint and pens, or make a cup of coffee to stay awake during an overnight shift. Large groups use the basement rec room to sing or pray, and sometimes volunteers walk the length of the 11-metre room, combining physical activity with spiritual practice.

Prayer requests for the city of Winnipeg, the country and international hot spots are pinned to large bulletin board covering three walls of the master bedroom, dubbed the prayer closet, providing volunteers plenty to meditate on, says Jonathon Mutch, who scans newspapers, websites and Pegwatch's Facebook page daily for updates.

"I feel like I have a bigger heart for the world because I know a lot of what's happening in the world," he says.

Part of an emerging international prayer movement, the Winnipeg house is among the oldest in Canada, says Richard Long of Together Canada, a national organization that co-ordinates interdenominational gatherings in Canadian cities.

"If people believe in prayer, as obviously these people do, then it gives (them) much more prayer possibilities," says Long of the attraction of prayer furnaces, known as boiler rooms in the United Kingdom.

"If you believe a prayer-saturated city is a good thing, that more prayer is better."

For late-night volunteer Rob Weiss, the idea of participating in world-wide movement motivates him to stay awake during his weekly 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.

"I've gotten deeper with God and pursued the things that are more important," says the 48-year-old arborist, who will read, play his guitar and pray during his three-hour shift.

After seven years of tending the prayer furnace -- a task that involves finding volunteers and taking on tough-to-fill early morning shifts -- the Mutches believe their prayers have been answered. Sometimes they've witnessed healing for those requesting prayer, but more often, they've seen the power of a regular discipline of prayer in themselves and their volunteers.

"I believe I've grown in faith to trust God more," says Carolyn.

"From my standpoint, there are many important things to do, but until you've prayed, you've left the most important thing undone," adds Jonathan.

And even the simple act of one Winnipegger praying for another is moving, says St. Hilaire, referring to the end-of-shift practice where the outgoing volunteer takes a moment to pray for -- and with -- the person on next.

"You might be coming in and you've had a hairy day and there's someone ready to pray for you," says St. Hilaire, now taking a break from volunteering after the birth of her fourth child.

"That really focuses your mind on God."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J13

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