God to go: Florida church offering drive-thru prayer

Hungry for Jesus Christ? Thirsty for spiritual fulfillment? Would you like salvation with that?

Your total is zero dollars and zero cents. Please drive through.

Wearing bright orange safety vests and smiles as wide as U.S. 41, half a dozen members of the Estero United Methodist Church offered a novel service to Southwest Florida residents on Wednesday night: Drive-thru prayer.

“The idea behind drive-thru prayer is to offer spiritual support to folks not attached to our church community,” said John Halley, 30, a recent transplant from Los Angeles who has served as the church’s director of discipleship.

“We’re on a visible part of U.S. 41, and this is one way to put ourselves out there and to give folks the opportunity to come by and receive the blessing of prayer.”

That blessing couldn’t have come at a better time, said Adam Loshbaugh of Bonita Springs, who pulled in to pray with his family.

“I’m at the end of my rope and I don’t know what else to do,” said Loshbaugh, who’s looking for employment. “It’s hard to make it, and I can’t support my family the way I want to. (Praying here tonight has) given us hope.”

Estero resident Nick Nataro said the signs offering drive-thru prayer spoke to him on a higher level.

“I saw the signs and, honestly, right now I’m going through some trials and tribulations,” Nataro said. “It seemed to be the Lord speaking to me and saying, ‘Hey, it’s been a while. Come on in and get a blessing.’”

Nataro said the idea of drive-thru prayer is a godsend for time-strapped people.

“It’s a neat thing, especially in the hustle and bustle of today’s world,” he said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time (praying), and the church members are saying, ‘We’ll wait here for you and give you a blessing.’ It’s pretty awesome."

Church member and lay leader Pam Sebby said no one is quite sure how the idea originated, although similar services have been offered in Fort Lauderdale, Phoenix, Massachusetts and Idaho.

“From what I understand, other churches have done it, so it may have filtered through the pipeline,” she said. “We did it a few years ago, but there was so much construction on U.S. 41 that we didn’t feel safe. We started it back up in the first part of February, and we’ll do it (from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday) through April every year.”

Halley said the drive-thru prayer is simply a service, not an enticement to join the church that boasts about 1,100 members during season.

“It’s not a church-growth strategy for us; it’s really just an outreach to share God’s love with our community,” he said.
Both Sebby and Halley said the success of the service varies from week to week.

“Our group has been out (here) five weeks now and in terms of people stopping (to pray), we might get five or six one week, three another week; a couple weeks we didn’t get anyone,” Halley said.

Sebby said the most people she can remember stopping to pray is “about eight,” but that number doesn’t cover the actual number of prayers offered.

“As we’re walking back and forth, we’re waving at and praying for the people driving by,” she said.

Both Sebby and Halley said the reception they receive from motorists is overwhelmingly positive, as was evidenced Wednesday night by the steady stream of honking horns and waving hands as drivers whizzed by on U.S. 41.

“People honk their horns and wave, and it’s just so cool because they know we’re there for them,” Sebby said.

“You’d be surprised by the tears of joy there are when people come through, because they know God’s there for them and listening to their concerns. It’s really neat.”

Ben Ybarra of Naples said an unexpected encounter earlier Wednesday prompted him to stop in and pray with church members.

“I was stopped at a light today on Immokalee Road and there was a mother and daughter out there collecting money,” he said. “I can’t believe there are people out there like that. That little girl should’ve been in school, and if you could’ve seen her face, it was so sad. I wanted to stop in to pray that everybody has a meal and a place to live.”

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