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Prayer groups: a camaraderie of comfort and a place for spiritual healing

| Sunday, April 4, 2010

As Christians everywhere gather to celebrate Easter, there is a steady backbeat of local prayer groups serving up spiritual camaraderie and comfort.

St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church in Arnold started a prayer group last year to revive the parish, while another prayer group, Ezekiel 37, at Mt. Saint Peter Parish in New Kensington enjoys an almost 40-year history with just a few interruptions.

For participants, prayer is their routine, a habit, and for the enlightened, a way of life.

"People who pray are much happier people," says the Rev. John Izral, pastor of St. Vladimir who has led charismatic prayer groups across the country.

"Any problem that comes up, they bounce over it just like a spot in the road. It doesn't hurt them at all," says Izral of those who pray. "For other people, if anything comes up, it is a traumatic drama for them," he adds.

Members of local prayer groups attribute their collective spirituality for making them stronger and helping them to overcome crises and become better human beings.

At the Ezekiel 37 weekly prayer meetings, people pray for lots of things. Recently, someone asked the group to pray for a neighbor with breast cancer; another member hoped for a friend's safe journey home.

Rosalind Bierhals of Arnold, a member of Ezekiel 37, says that the Lord answered a help call for her daughter's Shih Tzus puppy Bella recently. Two puppies were playing, and Bella was injured and lost one of her eyes.

They took the puppy to an emergency veterinary hospital, where the cost to treat the injury would be almost $2,000.

"We took her home, crying," Bierhals says.

The veterinarian at the emergency hospital advised that the women try the Animal Rescue League in Pittsburgh. The next day, the Rescue League clinic took care of Bella, and treated the injury, sewing up her eye for $150.

"We're just praising and thanking the Lord, because we are all animal lovers," Bierhals says.

"I love this prayer group," she says. "I feel the presence of the Lord, and a lot of my prayers have been answered."

Why people pray or need to

Prayer is a hunger, according to Dr. Susan Muto, dean of Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality, a resource center that fosters spiritual transformation and offers classes, seminars and continuing education.

"Just as we need food to nourish ourselves physically," Muto says, "We need prayer to nourish us spiritually. Prayer is to the spirit what breath is to the body."

Muto's center, located in the Beechview section of Pittsburgh, attracts a wide range of people, from clergy to caregivers of all denominations who are looking for spiritual education, including prayer and meditations.

"We see a trend of people wanting to experience a little bit of quiet," Muto says.

Given the overwhelming amount of information that bombards worshippers, people are looking for a place of peace, somewhere to wish, hope and discover -- a place to pray.

"How do you find silence and stillness in a noise-polluted world?" asks Muto, who has been the author of more than 100 books on spirituality and prayer, including the popular title "Meditation in Motion."

Many newcomers to Epiphany Academy and local prayer groups arrive looking for help to weather a tragedy.

"They have lost someone, they have undergone disappointment, such as downsizing from a job and they ask, 'Where do I go from here?' " Muto says. " 'How do I find some way to go through this suffering?' "

Sandi Shaffer-Hall of Upper Burrell is trying to find answers for her daughter Kathryn, 13, who is autistic.

"I would go almost everywhere to search for reasons," Shaffer-Hall says, about dealing with Kathryn's condition. Recently, she visited the St. Vladimir prayer group looking for solace and prayer.

"We're a very spiritual family, and if medically they can't give us answers, I'm not going to stop looking for it," she says.

After losing his job in 1986, Lou Naviglia of New Kensington came to Ezekiel 37 for help.

"I was down in the dumps," he says. After spending some time with the prayer group, he says he found a new attitude and a new job, "and I've been coming ever since."

Members have prayer partners and participate in "prayer chains," where they pray for people in need.

And some of the longtime members are dubbed "prayer warriors," according to Naviglia.

One of those warriors would be Rose Lechmanick of Bradford Woods, who has been coming to the New Kensington prayer group for 23 years.

"I had some problems in my life and had a friend who was a member," she says.

Lechmanick asked her friend to pray for her. "We parted our ways. That afternoon, such a sense of calm came over me. I called him and asked 'How did you do that?' "

That inspired her to attend her first prayer meeting, and she has continued to come back because of the spiritual fellowship.

"I like being around them," Lechmanick said of Ezekiel 37. "I've learned a lot from these people, and it's helped me to become a better person. I'm a very blessed person. That's why I come and why I continue to come."

Marian Ansani of Lower Burrell, a pastoral team member for Ezekiel 37, has been with the prayer group since 1971, and has taken a few breaks from the group.

"I love my church, but it is not as communal and close knit as a smaller group," she says. Ezekiel 37 started with 400 people; about 45 attend the group regularly each week.

People come to the prayer group for healing, Ansani says.

"They are looking for supernatural," she says. "Someone needs their kids to be back online. Someone needs their marriage healed."

Ansani worked through the death of a teenage son and marital problems.

"My heart was broken, and I knew that I couldn't get it fixed by a psychiatrist or a doctor. What I found, I had to relate to a lot of people here because their hearts were broken. Where do you run to?" Ezekiel 37.

According to Ansani, the prayers helped heal her grief.

"They're getting results here," she says. "I'm not going to tell you that every single person gets their prayer answered.

"If we bind together as a church, not just a Catholic Church or Lutheran or Orthodox, or even if you don't believe in God, we have something here, and it is love, and that's who God is to us."

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