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Austintown church adds prayer wall

Pastor’s trip to Holy Land inspired the construction

AUSTINTOWN — The West Austintown First United Methodist Church has a new addition with the construction late last year of a prayer wall featured in the front of the sanctuary.

The Rev. Jeff Harrison, church pastor, said that early last year he and other ministers with the Methodist Church Eastern Ohio conference looked at a place area pastors could go to further their learning, with the majority wanting to go to the Holy Land.

He said the Methodist Foundation of Ohio allows churches to invest money to help the local ministers, especially younger clergy, with furthering their education and training in pastoral leadership.

The 10-day pilgrimage had 40 clergy, including Harrison, the Rev. Abby Auman, Mahoning Valley District superintendent of the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Tracy Smith Malone and others from the Eastern Ohio annual conference.

“This trip helped us have the Scriptures come to life by visiting different sites. We were in Tel Aviv and then went to Galilee and took a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee. Everything that we had learned about had come to life,” Harrison said.

He said the group went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which he said left a large impact.

“There were Jews and Christians and people from all different religious denominations all came together to stop and pray at the wall. Before the trip, I had people from the church write down a prayer or their name on a piece of paper and took the time to pray and then place the papers in the cracks and crevices of the wall. It was very emotional and very impactful for me during my pilgrimage there,” Harrison said.

He said he brought back the idea of a prayer wall to the church congregation “as a way of unifying everyone as a body of Christ and unifying our prayers together.”

The church created its own wall with seven colors.

“Our sanctuary needed upgraded, and the rear wall of the stage area is the actual western wall of the church building,” he said.

“Each family and people from the congregation were asked if they wanted to be part of the project. We had an overwhelming response. Each family received a 2-foot prayer plank on which they could write their name and a prayer, a hymn that has been impactful to them, song lyrics. Some of the children drew pictures,” Harrison said.

Each of the wooden planks were stained. The planks were dropped off at people’s homes for them to write on, and they were picked up later.

Church members spent late last summer and fall putting the wall together and completed it by November when people for a short time were able to come inside the church and see it.

“We had people see it Nov. 1 for All Saints Day. When we were handing out the prayer planks, a woman who had passed away two weeks after completing her prayer plank was honored,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he and a neighbor who is a carpenter and a few others from the church got the wood and stain and worked on the wall following social distancing safety guidelines.

He said prayer walls have multiple meanings.

“The prayer walls mean that the churches are prayerfully coming together and knowing that everyone is surrounded by all the prayers of the church universal,” Harrison said.

Harrison said once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, he would like members of the church to come together and put their prayers in the wall as is done at the Wailing Wall, which is made of granite and stone.

He said the prayer wall replaced a bare wall that now adds to the stained- glass windows of the church.

Auman said the church and Harrison “have truly lived into our beliefs that church is more than a building and more than worship in a particular way inside that building.”

“This pandemic has forever changed all of us. While there is so much to lament, we are also learning lessons to take into the future that will make life better. This congregation will be reminded every time they walk into their sanctuary of how God carried them through this incredibly difficult time and the other spiritual lessons they learned,” she said.

Auman said the prayer wall is a many-layered symbol and a tangible expression of their prayers and a visible representation of how everyone’s lives are dependent on one another.

Auman said she is still learning the lessons of the trip to the Holy Land.

“There is only one Wailing Wall, and we must respect that just as we respect the unique practices of every religion. But religion at its best should inspire people to goodness, so it is lovely to see how that millennia-old place of deep prayer has inspired more prayer and faithfulness in a different way and place,” she said.

Harrison said the congregation tried to figure out a way for the church to join its prayers as a sort of living time capsule, something that wouldn’t just be a fleeting moment on a Sunday morning.

He said while in the Holy Land, three things with the most impact were seeing baptisms in the Jordan River, visiting the Sea of Galilee and standing at the Wailing Wall.

Harrison and church leadership want to be able to incorporate the wall into worship life on a regular basis.

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