Artist Provides Booths For Prayer They look just like telephone booths, but they are decorated with hands folded in prayer, and there's a place to kneel. The prayer booths are an art installation designed to spark dialogue on prayer in the public sphere. There are prayer booths in Jackson, Tennessee, in Ceder Rapids Iowa — and now on a bustling Manhattan street in New York City.
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Artist Provides Booths For Prayer

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Artist Provides Booths For Prayer

Artist Provides Booths For Prayer

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SCOTT SIMON, host.

They look just like telephone booths, but they're decorated with hands folded in prayer, and there's a place to kneel. The booths are an art installation designed to get people to discuss prayer. You can find these prayer booths in Jackson, Tennessee, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and now in New York, where NPR's Margot Adler found them on a bustling Manhattan street.

MARGOT ADLER: You couldn't find a place less conducive to meditation than this corner at 60th Street, where cars are streaming east toward the 59th Street Bridge or down 2nd Avenue. And yet there are two prayer booths here a block apart. I'm surprised to see Ken Bronstein, the president of New York City Atheists, checking them out.

So you just happened to be walking by at this very moment.

Mr. KEN BRONSTEIN (President, New York City Atheist). I just happened to be walking by at this exact moment. But I always keep my eyes and ears open.

ADLER: And what Bronstein says is art-shmart, this is prayer in a public place.

Mr. BRONSTEIN: As an atheist, when you talk about prayer, you're talking to a supernatural situation, and we say there is no supernatural. So that definitely puts it in a religious category. That, to me, is the line. You know, if they want to put it on private property, that's where it should go - but not in public space.

ADLER: I watched for an hour. No one prays. One person snaps a picture of the booth. Another comments sadly that there is graffiti on one. Francesca Richardson(ph) says she gets by on disability payments. She notes not many people come up to the booths.

Ms. FRANCESCA RICHARDSON: It's almost like they're walking around it like, what is this thing? It's a mystery.

ADLER: Not for her, though. She remembers she was on her way to the bank.

Ms. RICHARDSON: And praying on the way over.

ADLER: She really needed this check to clear. First, it didn't. Then it did. Then she walked outside.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Saw the prayer booth, went over to it, was curious. Opened it up.

ADLER: Did you kneel?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yes, I did. And I was just praying for gratitude and thanks. That's all I'm going to say - is I believe.

ADLER: And she is not unique. Avery Williams(ph) is 7 years old.

Ms. AVERY WILLIAMS: My gerbil died. So we prayed for him. And my dog had a very bad leg. So we prayed for that, too.

ADLER: The artist Dylan Mortimer, who says he is a person of faith, designed these prayer booths as part of the city's Arts in the Park program to start a dialogue about public prayer.

Mr. DYLAN MORTIMER (Artist): The piece sparks a wide range of reactions, from people loving it to people hating it to people threatening me and to people - I mean, it's kind of all over the board.

ADLER: He says prayer is a really difficult topic, especially in a city like New York. It's a loaded topic, causes divisions. But let's face it, he says, people could be praying anywhere: sitting down, standing up, or walking or running. And of course, it's true. All you have to do is ride the New York City subways to see Jewish men davening over prayer books, Catholic women saying the rosary, and lots of people doing who knows what, eyes closed, hands folded. As Dylan Mortimer puts it...

Mr. MORTIMER: Perhaps a scary reality is there could be people praying all around you. And that's sort of the point.

ADLER: Although others would argue that what people do privately is not the same thing as having something out there in public, even if it's art. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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