Posted by Phil on 23.07.2012
"It all started rather bizarrely. It sounds like a joke: 'An Imam and an atheist walk into a prayer room…' But there they were; my volunteers. I met them in the corridors and they both offered to help bring in my boxes of material, fairy lights, wallpaper and post-it notes. Now they were sat together, chatting, cutting out pictures ready for a prayer activity for our week on ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, at Gloucester Academy. I knew that it was going to be a special week.
Whilst planning the prayer space our little team had felt drawn to the simplicity and depth of the Lord’s Prayer as a dynamic way of exploring prayer in various forms. It’s our hope to create a welcoming, yet sacred space at the heart of school life, which encourages students and staff to develop their awareness of themselves, others and God; key themes woven throughout the beautiful and challenging words of Jesus in response to his disciples’ plea, “Lord, teach us how to pray”.
Recent research shows that children are half as likely to know the Lord’s Prayer as they were 40 years ago. However, they are twice as likely to say that ‘religion’ is important to them. The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to this by encouraging schools to prioritise teaching the Lord’s Prayer to children as something that can “change lives”.
And so, inspired by this ‘life changing’ prayer we set up various prayer zones under different banners; Thank you, Sorry, Please, Forgive, Lead Me. These are the big, moving, powerful prayers we all pray; buckets of meaning in single words. It didn’t take long for students to come up with many examples for each, as we introduced them to the room at the beginning of each lesson.
Overall, 400 students came through the prayer room during lessons and lunch breaks. Hopes and prayers written and crafted by students and teachers alike. Year 6’s, from a number of Primary schools, were brought in as part of their ‘Transition’ day before starting as students in September. A representative from the Department of Education visited the school and had to sit down because she was so moved by what she saw. Someone half joked after school that the positive impact of the prayer room had ‘saved the school’.
And yet, it is the prayers, the conversations and time with students that make the previous points seem almost irrelevant. At the end of the day, people enter the prayer room and literally go away changed. Here’s a few prayers from around the room;
"sorry for the wrongs I’ve done and the hurt I’ve caused"
"sorry for my anger"
"sorry for being horrible to you"
"sorry for pushing close people away from me"
"thanks step mum and dad for treating me like your own"
"thank you for bringing me into the world"
"thanks for healing my mum and grandma"
"thank you for mending my mistakes"
"lead me to stop getting detentions"
"lead me to do what you want me to do"
"lead me to love"
"lead me to peace"
"lead me to help my mum get through this"
"lead me to who I am when I act like someone else"
An 11 year old came over to me during a lesson on the last day. I was sat at the ‘Forgive’ zone - a place to write someone's name on a mini white board, then 'wipe the slate clean' as an act of forgiveness and letting go. He’d been already, and then came back on his own. "I just needed to come back, because I did something real bad to my Granddad before he died," he said. And with that, he burst in tears.
He was so upset because he had said "I hate you" to his granddad just before he had an operation. Sadly, it was very serious and his granddad had died during the procedure. He hadn't meant what he said, he didn’t know why. And the hurt had been with him for 5 years.
I asked him if they were friends, and I got him to tell me some of the good memories and fun he'd had with him. He calmed down a little, and started to cheer up. I wanted to encourage him that his granddad would've remembered him as a friend.
He took a deep breath. Then, I gently encouraged him to write that bad memory down, and wipe it off as a way of letting go and giving it over to God, receiving forgiveness and choosing to remember the good stuff about his granddad. And so he did – it was so brave. He then took out his wallet and showed me a picture of his granddad. He’d carried this guilt for so long and now it was out and wiped away. The lesson came to a close, and he said goodbye, feeling a little better and a lot lighter.
As much as we juggle with the development of these prayer spaces, with all the background work of seeing their positive impact spread through the whole life of the school; when it comes down to it, the simple yet profound encounters with a student at a prayer activity are the reason we do this. As the movement grows, conversations increase and creativity goes wild, we must always remember the obvious – prayer spaces in schools are about prayer – prayer that changes lives."
Joe Knight is one of the early prayer space pioneers, and has been involved in about 20 prayer spaces around Gloucester, mostly in the Academy. If you've seen our Prayer Spaces in Schools video, Joe (and Chris, the chaplain) were the ones who created the huge papier mache tree. We're still amazed. ;)