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Prayer Group Walks Streets Seeking Divine Help for Harlem

By Jeff Mays | December 20, 2011 11:16am

HARLEM — It was still dark at the Polo Grounds Towers when Rev. Al Taylor and the other prayer walkers began gathering in front of the massive public housing complex last week.

Every Thursday for the past 3 1/2 years, in all weather and even on Thanksgiving, Taylor, 54, and other men who are part of a group called Man Up in Harlem have met at 6 a.m. at the 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard subway station.

They then walk through the neighborhood, praying for their community.

With their arms around one another's shoulders, the men huddle up in front of bodegas, under tressels and in the trash-strewn lobbies, playgrounds and dark corners of the Polo Grounds.

They pray for an end to violence, they pray for the police, they pray for jobs, they pray for people facing eviction and they pray for mothers worried that their sons coming home from prison will return to the activities that sent them there in the first place.

Every Thursday at 6 a.m., a group of men led by Rev. Al Taylor from Man Up in Harlem gather at the Polo Grounds Houses to pray.
Every Thursday at 6 a.m., a group of men led by Rev. Al Taylor from Man Up in Harlem gather at the Polo Grounds Houses to pray.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

"We know the power of God is awesome and (He) can do what no one else can do," Taylor, a married father of five, said on a recent Thursday morning.

The prayer walks started after a spate of violence at the Polo Grounds three-and-a-half years ago. The gigantic complex consists of four 30-story tall buildings over 15 1/2 acres with more than 1,600 apartments and 4,000 residents.

At least three people were killed there over the span of a few months. Another man was doused with gasoline and set ablaze in the lobby of one of the buildings. The violence was so alarming that Taylor, who is the pastor of the nearby Infinity Mennonite Church on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, decided that something needed to be done.

"There was such a sense of despair. I felt personally that I should do something," said Taylor. "Love can provide hope. And hope can make things better."

When they first started out, suspicious residents looked at the group of men of all colors gathering early in the morning and thought they were the NYPD warrant squad. Others would ask the group for money.

But over time, the men began to see a difference. Once-wary residents would come up and ask for prayer. Some joined the circle.

About a year after the prayer walk started, Taylor says he received a call from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly who wanted to meet.

"He told us crime stats had dropped since we started the prayer walk," said Taylor. There were no murders at the Polo Grounds for a long stretch until recently. There have been two homicides at the Polo Grounds since this summer, with one man shot and another stabbed to death.

The men mention the incidents when they stop to pray near a playground where one of the victims was stabbed, but say they are not discouraged.

"Over the years where there were no murders here, you can clearly see the hand of God at work," said Taylor.

"You can also give the police credit for their work, but I'm going to have to go with the higher power. We aren't worried because this isn't just about crime statistics and results, but being faithful."

Dickon Warren, one of the prayer walk participants and a member of a Christian community in Harlem, said the men were making a difference with their presence and long-term commitment to prayer.

"This is what society needs, for men to stand up and do what needs to be done, to take responsibility for their neighborhoods and families. That's what's missing," he said.

On a recent Thursday, nanny Stacey Best, 44, stood in the lobby of one building at about 6:30 a.m. She was waiting for the school bus to arrive to take one son to school, but was thinking about another son who is in prison.

Pastor Jack Royster spotted Best looking at the group and asked her if she wanted prayer.

Best nodded and said she could use a prayer for the safety of her incarcerated son and for a better future for him when he comes homes.

"May no weapon formed against them prosper, Father," Anthony Hunter, a deacon at Taylor's church, said. "We ask that you send your angels out to guide them."

Best was overwhelmed.

"This is so beautiful," she said of the prayer walk. "We really, really need it."

The men continued on.

A block later, they crossed back into the Polo Grounds. They were joined by a special visitor with them, Inspector Rodney Harrison, the new commander of the 32nd Precinct. Harrison worked a midnight shift and waited for the group in an unmarked car with two other officers.

"You didn't need a team, we got Jesus with us," Taylor told Harrison who responded with a laugh and a hug.

Soon, Harrison and his two officers joined the huddle.

"If we have to go the spiritual route to get people to put the guns down, so be it," said Harrison.

The two recent murders at the Polo Grounds are concerning, but Harrison views the prayer walks as a sign of concern about the neighborhood from within the neighborhood.

"This is something that the community needs to see, that the police and clergy are working together. We can't do it by ourselves," said Harrison. "Maybe eventually more people will jump into this effort."

For Harlem residents like Monique Haynes, "the prayer walks are making a difference."

Taylor spotted Haynes and asked if she had any prayer requests? She said she is unemployed and her landlord is trying to evict her. The men prayed for her housing situation.

"It was uplifitng," she said after joining the prayer circle.

The sun peeked over the horizon. When the prayer walk began at 6 a.m., the Polo Grounds were largely quiet. Now, bleary-eyed, yawning workers have given way to kids rushing to the line of yellow school buses on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

The men headed to center court at the famed Rucker Park to end the walk.

"Father, if we had a billion tongues coming out of our mouths, it would never be enough to thank you," Hunter prayed.

Taylor already has other groups of men huddling at housing projects throughout the city. There are prayer walks in the Bronx, the Rockaways in Queens and now a group at Manhattanville Houses. That group started after the murder of basketball star Tayshana Murphy who lived at nearby Grant Houses and may have been the victim of a feud between the two housing developments, police said.

He calls each group from his cellphone at a different stop at the Polo Grounds and they pray over the phone together. Taylor says his goal is to have a group of men step up at every public housing complex in the city, creating a network of prayer.

"I think hope has arrived here," said Taylor. "And it's going to be here for a long time to come."