Popping up all over Kansas City, the Topekas News reports, are payphone-like "prayer booths" that raise questions about the role of religious life in secular spaces but also give local residents an easy way to do their part to help shape world events, like this woman:
“The Chiefs are playing the Broncos. I forgot to go pray last Monday and for all I know, that is why [Peyton] Manning’s ankle MRI came back negative. If I had prayed, maybe God would have sprained it a little more and he would be out this week.”
[Michelle] Ioda’s belief in the power of prayer is fervent and mirrors many of her neighbors, she said. Since the booths were put in throughout town several months ago, Kansas City data tracking confirms that on average, the prayer booths receive over 100,000 callers per week.
Making the prayer booths even more newsworthy, as highlighted by Washington, D.C.-based evangelical newspaper The Christian Post, is that some credit them with driving down crime in the city:
According to Topeka News, some of the booths were installed in inner city areas with high crime rates several years ago, and city data confirms that crime has reportedly reduced in those areas in a proportionate manner to the number of people using the prayer booths.
More than 100,000 direct appeals to God per week in a city of just 147,000? Crime reduction? Not bad. But the fact that, as reported by both outlets, the prayer booths are the work of the Kansas City city council is also prompting some soul searching. The blog Elite Daily — "the Voice of Generation-Y" — picks up the thread with piece headlined "Only In America: Kansas Town Installs Phone Prayer Booths So Residents Can Call God Whenever They Want." That prompted one commenter to respond:
So, how exactly is this being paid for? Taxpayer money? I’m sure our secular taxpayers would be "thrilled" to find out how their taxes are being spent.
Kansas City’s prayer booths are proving all the more powerful because they don’t actually, in the physical sense, exist.
Let’s back up. Artist Dylan Mortimer has been making religious-themed art for more then a decade. He has an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York and also serves as a pastor at a nondenominational church in Prairie Village, Kan. The original "prayer booth" concept is Mortimer’s design, and he’s installed one in New York City. Dubuque, Iowa, even featured one as part of an installation, on sale for $3,000. But, you know, as art. The original Topekas News piece about their becoming part of Kansas City’s citywide infrastructure was satire, it seems, but Mortimer doesn’t know what sparked it. "It’s been kind of a riot," he said on the phone.
(To guard against the possibility of being fooled twice, I checked with the city. "We don’t have prayer booths in our city," Edwin Birch, public information officer for the unified government of Kansas City and Wyandotte County, said dryly when I rang him up. "The city doesn’t know anything about it. We haven’t been approached by prayer booths. We don’t know anything about prayer booths in our city or county.")
Mortimer explained what he was thinking in creating the prayer booth piece. "We all have private things that we’re convicted by, and they leak into the public in different ways," he said. "My take is that idea of it not doing that is impossible, so the question is, which are respectful and generous ways to do it and which are not? You can never stop anyone from praying. You never even necessarily know if they are. So it’s using humor to bridge the fact that you don’t know, and that you obviously don’t need a booth to pray."
Mortimer has newer works — his latest involves motion-responsive halos on display at the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College — but his prayer booth piece has earned the most attention. Part of it, perhaps, is the suggestion that folks are dialing God’s phone number. It’s also likely that the booths, with their familiar forms and Bell blue coloring, look official. "I really just ordered a phone booth and customized it," Mortimer said. "The kneeler was the only ‘part’ part."
"The reaction has always been all over the board," Mortimer continued. "There’s people that love it. People that hate it. People that send death threats. People that really get into it. Everything."
At this point, Mortimer doesn’t even have to actually build the prayer booth to get a reaction. You may have heard it said that the the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist. In the case of Kansas City’s prayer booths, their greatest trick is convincing the world that they do. "This is the first time," Mortimer said, "that there’s been press about it not being installed."
The Shared City is made possible with the support of The Knight Foundation.
Nancy Scola is a journalist and writer whose work on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications. She is a correspondent on technology and politics for The Atlantic. She was previously the associate editor of techPresident, a widely-read daily online publication of the Personal Democracy Forum. She’s talked about governing, campaigns, political organizing, technology policy, digital media and more on the BBC, CNN.com, MSNBC, and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and frequently appears on conference panels.