Terry J. Stokes, a youth pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey, was raised practicing spontaneous prayer. After he was confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church in 2019, however, Stokes was drawn to the rhythms of traditional liturgy and written prayers. The two practices are combined in his debut book, Prayers for the People: Things We Didn’t Know We Could Say to God (Convergent, Nov.), which PW’s starred review called “stimulating” and “inspiring.”
What inspired you to write Prayers for the People?
In my final year of seminary at Princeton, I noticed officials at the Episcopal Church using collects, which are short written prayers for a certain day or topic. I wrote my first collect while at St. Philip’s Church in Harlem to celebrate its first rector, Reverend Peter Williams, who was also the second Black man ordained in the Episcopal Church, following Reverend Absalom Jones. The experience was spiritually generative and enriching. A month later, I went on a first date and I did what I normally do—got way ahead of myself emotionally. I decided to write a collect about it, which I entitled 'For when one is enamored but must be chill about it”. It got a great response from friends and on social media, but what made me decide to keep writing was the spiritual efficacy that it had for me. I then came up with more millennial situations to write prayers about—like getting trolled on the internet—and it ballooned from there.
The book includes prayers related to online dating, anti-racism, healing from miscarriage, and more; how did you decide which topics to write about?
One of the most beautiful and unexpected things about this project has been people reaching out to me. For example, I had someone request a prayer for folks experiencing disordered eating. It became a collaborative process. It’s a balancing act, since I don’t want to speak for them, so we work together. It’s given me the opportunity to build relationships with people, and I think that’s actually the secret of how this project has become what it is—simple word of mouth.
Who are these prayers targeted toward?
These short prayers are easily digestible on social media, where they reach a certain demographic. Additionally, writing from my own perspective means I’m more likely to resonate with people closer to my generation. But when I expanded into broader topics, like a prayer for single folks with an unfulfilled longing for marriage and children, or a prayer for experiencing a miscarriage, I began to get feedback from folks of different generations. I hope to continue to strike that balance of writing in a way that's authentic to my experience, but also cast a wide enough net to where anyone can buy the book and find prayer resources that meet them where they are.