Detroit church raises prayer wall amid downtown crowd

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Situated next door to Comerica Park, along the upcoming QLine rail system and blocks away from the under construction hockey arena, St. John’s Episcopal Church has a prime spot amid the hustle and bustle of a resurgent downtown Detroit.

Now, parishioners hope visitors take time to flock to another attraction just outside the historic Victorian Gothic revival-style building they deem as important to the city’s rejuvenation: a nearly 9-foot-tall wooden prayer wall open to all divine requests.

“It’s kind of a way for us to connect with the community because of everything else that’s going on around us,” said the Rev. Steven Kelly, the church’s longtime pastor. “If we leave the spiritual aspect out, then we are neglecting what real renewal is all about.”

The wall was installed during Holy Week and celebrates its dedication Sunday, coinciding with the church’s 16th annual service to pray for the Detroit Tigers before their upcoming regular season.

Sports glory alone didn’t spark the cross-capped structure, where devotees can insert written pleas into slots. However, “if people want to put in, ‘The Tigers should win the game today,’ that’s fine,” said Joe Alff, a longtime church member.

The Grosse Pointe resident was pushed to pursue the project after seeing a similar structure — indoors and erected to resemble the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem — at an Illinois church last year.

A devout Christian and retired psychiatric social worker who relocated to southeast Michigan in the late 1960s, Alff was moved to “give something to Detroit. I’ve been a huge Detroit booster even in its darkest days. I saw this as an opportunity to give Detroit a gift, and I think to have a spiritual outlet like this is a wonderful gift.”

He soon presented the idea to St. John’s then, with their blessing, enlisted his neighbor, retired artist Gene Pluhar, to design and construct the piece.

Thus launched a labor of love Alff called “Holy Spirit-driven.” Pluhar, who has expertise in sculpting and woodworking, estimates he logged some 95 hours carefully crafting a half-ton of pressure-treated lumber.

Deploying a cord wood style to approximate the appearance of stones, he aimed for modesty. “I think you want it to be humble. I don’t know that you’d want something so sculptural or fancy that it displaced the whole idea of prayer,” he said. “In a sense, prayer is humble. The two should fit each other.”

While the concept of a specialized prayer site is not new, Alff said he and his fellow churchgoers failed to find another exterior example matching the description in the region.

The novelty, and simplicity, has already invited the curious as well as the committed to leave their entreaties in the short time the wall has graced Montcalm, Kelly said. “It’s been very well-received. I’ve been watching it — I see more and more slips appearing.”

Paper and writing utensils stay nearby; whether scrawled after much contemplation or a brief walk, appeals penned there remain confidential, Kelly and Alff said.

Even so, those words — expected to be burned or buried — are not in vain. The church is assembling a team to periodically “congregate and pray that God answers these petitions,” Alff said. “I’d like to do it when people are going to the games so people can see it. We’re serious. You put your prayer in there, we’re going to pray awfully hard that it gets answered.”