"How do we become a love letter to Austin?"
That question had been sitting with Joe Skraba. As Covenant pastors preached and discussed spreading God’s love to our city, Joe pondered: How can we utilize our campus as an outreach to the neighborhood and the entire community?
His wife, Holly, felt the same. “We have this great location, and it was bugging us to figure out what we could do.”
Joe's inspiration manifested as a fusion between this desire to serve Austin and two events he observed while traveling for business. “I was in Houston at the Texas Medical Center for work. As you leave, there’s a big Episcopal church. It was Ash Wednesday and a team was out offering drive-through ashes.” A few months later, Joe was at the University of Texas at Arlington and saw a prayer tent. People were coming and filling out forms, and students and others were offered intercessory prayers on the spot.
“Those ideas fomented in me and I came up with the idea to offer drive-through prayer," Joe said.
After talking with Jill Williams, Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Missions, and the other pastors, Joe got the green light for a trial program. “Our intention was not to recruit Covenant members to come through. We wanted to serve the community, but didn’t know if it would resonate with those outside our church,” Joe said. “We were hopeful. There was the nerve of ‘what if no one comes?’”
“But they did!” Holly interjected. “That first day, we had six or seven people. Our second day, a Friday, we had 15 or 16. We immediately got a good response, and averaged about 12 a day.
“We were pleased with the total number of people who came through and their level of satisfaction,” Holly said. “The other exciting thing was people were waving or honking as they drove by. We felt like we were giving them something positive to focus on on their way to or from where they were going.”
Joe explained that the emails sent and prayer cards completed by Drive-Thru Prayer recipients were telling. “There’s a surprising number of people who have really hard issues that they’re dealing with. These people are coming in and just getting a little bit of hope from us.”
Covenant member and volunteer Jim Rumbo had just finished his Tuesday shift and showed off an orange. “A city employee gave me this today,” he said, explaining that the man’s job was changing and he felt like he was getting the short end of the deal. “That situation didn’t change his attitude,” Jim said. “His gift to people is his smile. It’s like the clouds part when he smiles. We prayed for his encouragement. He gave me an orange and said, ‘If no one else comes through here... know that what you did for me today made my day!’”
“I didn’t do it,” Jim told the man, “the Lord did!”
When asked why he came out, volunteer Les Gage said, “The people we pray for. Their stories are amazing. What people ask for in these prayers is incredible. Today, one person asked us to pray for his church. Another asked, ‘Could my church do this?’”
Joe recalled the statistic that only 14 percent of Austinites go to church, but 70 percent call themselves Christian. “There’s a big gap between who comes to church and those who say they are believers,” he said.
“Drive-Thru Prayer is low pressure,” Joe continued. "We’re not recruiting. The thing that got reinforced pretty quickly was that almost nobody coming through was from Covenant. Some were on campus for something else and we were really satisfied that we were reaching out to the community with no strings attached.”
“And they are all driving by,” Holly finished. “I believe most don’t have a church. I think they believe, but just have an issue with organized church. They believe in prayer; they believe in Jesus Christ, but don’t want to join a church.”
Joe agreed. “There are all sorts of barriers in a church community. It’s hard to climb those four stairs to get up to the worship service. This is easier. There are no crowds and it’s a little more personal.”
During DTP’s first trial run, the group offered prayers on Tuesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9. The second two runs were for a week at a time–once during the week of the national election and again just before Christmas.
“I’m shocked every time at how fast the time goes. I look at my watch and it’s over,” Holly said. “We choose to be out on the street at 7 in the morning to stand with a sign. If we didn’t have other volunteers, I would be there hands down. I think holding that sign matters.”
Jim Rumbo has truly enjoyed being a part of DTP. “This is the most precious ministry I’ve ever participated in … because it’s pure. We just show up and are present for the people who come through. It’s our opportunity to be with them in whatever circumstance they bring.”
Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman wrote about the ministry. “I see no downside here and lots of potential upside,” he wrote, and after describing the ministry through Joe’s words, Herman continued. “It’s that simple. You got a problem. They’ve got a prayer. No problems? They’ve got a prayer to help you celebrate that.”
In a recent article in Windows, the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s magazine, seminary president Theodore Wardlaw (who preached at Covenant last spring) wrote about Covenant’s Drive-Thru Prayer. He explained the concept and how Covenant prays for what is most on the hearts of those driving by. And then he asked, “Is this foolish?” He answered his own question: “No. Heavens, no. It’s the work of an apostolate. Fools for Christ; people who embody an expanding church–a church searching for new ways to point toward the promises of a God who is still very much alive in the world.”
“We don’t want this be our thing, we want it to be the church,” Holly said. “Volunteering can be a one-day commitment. We want people to get involved and know that they are not signing up to all six weeks or to every day of the week, just for an hour or two for one day,” Holly said.
“If you want to check your faith,” Jim urged, “Come and participate. It will test your faith. If your faith is weak and you’re able to pray for someone, it’s the Holy Spirit praying with you.”