Devout Flock to 'Holy Highway'

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Cindy Jacobs stands in front of a blue highway sign that reads North Interstate 35E i

Cindy Jacobs started the Light the Highway movement. "One day we were praying, and we were reading Isaiah 35, Verse 8, which talks about a highway for holiness," she says. "And we were thinking, wouldn't it be wonderful if along this Highway 35 here, that there was a special time where God just touched everybody that lives in all parts of this highway?" John Burnett, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR
Cindy Jacobs stands in front of a blue highway sign that reads North Interstate 35E

Cindy Jacobs started the Light the Highway movement. "One day we were praying, and we were reading Isaiah 35, Verse 8, which talks about a highway for holiness," she says. "And we were thinking, wouldn't it be wonderful if along this Highway 35 here, that there was a special time where God just touched everybody that lives in all parts of this highway?"

John Burnett, NPR

A prayer movement has broken out in a handful of churches along Interstate 35. Participants say that if people pray hard enough, God will touch communities along the highway, which stretches from Texas to Minnesota.

The prayer movement — part of a Pentecostal, evangelical branch of conservative Christianity — began with Cindy Jacobs, a petite and intense woman who heads a prayer ministry called Generals International.

"One day we were praying, and we were reading Isaiah 35, Verse 8, which talks about a highway for holiness," she says. "And we were thinking, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if along this Highway 35 here, that there was a special time where God just touched everybody that lives in all parts of this highway?'"

Jacobs then developed what she calls a "prayer strategy" for people from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minn., to pray for 35 days along Interstate 35.

"We prayed to eliminate systemic poverty, we prayed for safety, we prayed for people caught in drug addictions, and trapped in their lives and hopeless," she says.

The prayers continued well beyond those first 35 days.

And now the movement is called Light the Highway.

Light the Highway's Web site lists 22 churches and prayer groups along the interstate — in places such as Laredo and Duluth as well as San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, Texas; Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo.; Des Moines, Iowa, and Minneapolis. According to the site, participants do not believe that Isaiah actually refers to Interstate 35. Rather, it says, the Bible is used symbolically "as a catalyst to begin praying, just like those who live in Interstate 40 can use Isaiah 40:3."

Do travelers think it's strange when they see a cluster of people — heads bowed and hands uplifted — on a grassy strip next to the highway?

"What would you rather have? A group of young people praying on I-35 or a group of young people dealing drugs on I-35? Take your pick," says Steve Hill, the 54-year-old senior pastor at Heartland World Ministries, in the Dallas suburb of Irving.

Though Light the Highway is not widely known, there is considerable skepticism about it at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"America is full of religious groups that are testing the boundaries of what is possible to believe — much of which will have a very ephemeral lifespan and will fade from the scene because it's without substance," says William Lawrence, the dean at Perkins.

'Purity Siege'

Roadside supplication is not all that Heartland World Ministries does. The church, which is at the center of Light of Highway, sends prayer teams into jails, malls, upscale neighborhoods and Dallas' gay bar district.

"We don't believe that God is going to come down and touch the asphalt," says the group's leader, Joe Oden, a former drug addict-turned-evangelist. "But we believe that God is going to touch the people from the corridor of Laredo to Minneapolis, Minn. And we're right off of I-35 here, and so this is an area where people are. And we believe with Light the Highway that everyone needs Jesus — Caucasian people, black people, heterosexuals, homosexuals."

Every Friday night, Oden's prayer team comes down to Dallas' gay bar district to conduct what they call "a purity siege" — in hopes of setting off a sort-of mass repentance.

While they're sometimes heckled, on this night interactions with club patrons are civil.

"To be honest, this is darkness out here," says Kevin Wilks, a 22-year-old evangelist from Little Rock, Ark.

Kyle Perkins, a 49-year-old gay interior designer from Dallas, disagrees. Writ large, what evolves between the two becomes more than just a dialogue between a street preacher and a gay interior designer; it's a snatch of the same debate that's tearing apart Protestant denominations along every interstate in America.

"See, the truth is graven on your heart, Kyle. God loves you so much he put the truth in your heart," says Wilks.

"And I still do not think I'm doing wrong," says Perkins. "I think I was created this way. God created me a homosexual and I'm perfectly happy that way. And I'm going to be in heaven, and I'm sure you're going to be in heaven, too."

While the church group seeks to light the highway with the redeemed souls of sinners, some residents along congested Interstate 35 might request a different sort of supernatural intervention: How about fewer traffic jams?

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