Student-led prayer weathering the storms

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Catastrophic hurricanes in the U.S. and the Caribbean impeded planning for an annual student-led prayer event held this morning (Sept. 27), but likely did not daunt desires to pray, organizers told Baptist Press.

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey killed an estimated 82 people or more and extensively flooded several communities just as training for the prayer event, See You at the Pole (SYATP), would have begun in late August, SYATP greater Houston metro coordinator John Butler said.

In its 27th year, the event encouraged students to gather at their school flagpoles for prayer at 7 a.m. local time today. Other prayer events are also being held throughout Global Week of Student Prayer Sept. 24-30. Typically, many churches will host SYATP-related events in the evening, allowing students to share prayer reports from their individual schools.

But for some in hurricane-impacted areas, Butler noted, this year has been different.

"There's no promotion time left. We had two events that were scheduled before the hurricane hit, and they were both cancelled because of the hurricane," Butler told BP Tuesday (Sept. 26). "The kids are excited about doing See You at the Pole, if they remember about it, but they haven't been trained, they haven't been prepared. By the time they think about it, it's almost too late to promote it."

But in the Dominican Republic, struck this month by both hurricanes Irma and Maria, a SYATP event organizer in the capital city of Santo Domingo expected more participation this year than in 2016, when Hurricane Matthew struck the area days after SYATP.

"The storms haven't altered our plans as schools are running as normal," Alexander Lopez Diaz told BP. "However, the storms did affect the advertising and connection-making as we had to cancel our meetings with pastors several times."

Diaz, who has organized SYATP events in the Dominican for three years, communicated with BP via Facebook. He has used social media in efforts to organize a prayer convocation across the island, concentrating his efforts in Santo Domingo.

"Dominican citizens are positive on the effect that prayer can bring to our country; no one is ever bothered by or opposed to prayer," he told BP. "Last year we had four universities' main campuses participating and about eight schools. It is our expectation to exceed that number in five -- seven college campuses and 10-15 schools minimum."

SYATP promoter Doug Clark, national field director for the National Network of Youth Ministries (NNYM), expected students to pray especially for national unity this year, and for communities hit by hurricanes and earthquakes. Still, organizers avoid dictating prayer points, Clark said.

"I believe students will be praying about our culture wars, and also focusing on the areas of the U.S. (Florida/Texas), Puerto Rico and Mexico that are groaning right now," Clark said. "The theme this year is 'Fix Our Eyes,' from Hebrews 12:2. Our nation needs more than ever before to get our eyes off our divisions and fix them on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of faith."

Today he tweeted, "Love seeing my social media feeds full of students praying today."

While participation in SYATP reached as high as 3 million in the 1990s, Clark said, it has leveled to 1 million in more recent years and has included as many as 64 countries.

In Texas, where students organized the first SYATP a year after a 1990 DiscipleNow weekend, Butler still expected students to pray this year. But he didn't know of any churches planning to hold events this evening, as most congregations are focused on disaster recovery work.

"There still will be a lot of kids gathering at their flag poles," he said. "Our concern [as veteran youth workers] is that we were really trying to encourage the youth pastors in the different communities to work together to provide training ahead of time, so that when the kids showed up at the pole they already had a plan in mind."

Butler emailed 116 youth pastors in the eight-county area he overseas, but said he received no responses.

"We don't know of any (youth pastors) who are hosting an event," he said.

SYATP does not violate U.S. laws against prayer in schools, as all prayer is student-led, before school hours and outside of any school building, according to the SYATP website. But the site encourages students to pray off campus if school administrators object to the event.

Christian radio station KSBJ is holding a community wide prayer rally Thursday (Sept. 28) in Houston, but Butler said the rally is not a SYATP event.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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