Calling higher for lower prices

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - Standing alongside a row of gas pumps at a Shell station, Rocky Twyman joined hands with several cohorts, prayed to God for economic and social relief then sang "We Shall Overcome" - inserting the lyrics "We'll have lower gas prices" the second time around.

For nearly a month, Twyman, a Rockville resident who serves as music director for a Baltimore church, has been praying at gas pumps - and anywhere else he is welcome - asking God to lower prices. Of course, since he started his prayer campaign, or what he calls a movement, the price of gas just keep inching upwards.

"We've got a lot more praying to do, man," he said to a German television crew that came to film one of his recent prayer sessions at the Shell station.

The prayer may not yet have had a global impact on oil prices, but Twyman's modest effort has nonetheless drawn global attention. News outlets from around the world have called - he's brought his prayer to Australian radio, Arab television and (despite his personal penchant for classical and gospel) a Florida rock station. He's prayed on radio programs in Texas and Oregon and repeated his simple invocation - "Oh God, deliver us from these high gas prices" - and in person in San Francisco. Shortly after his interview on Auto Mobil, a popular German automotive show, someone from a Colombian radio program reached him on his cell phone. Then a Russian news outlet called.

"This has exploded," said Twyman, 59. "The big thing about this movement is that it's giving people hope."

He says that in Florida, gas prices fell after his radio appearance and some people, inspired by his example, have started praying at the pump on their own.

With prayer and more prayer, he believes prices will come tumbling down like the "walls of Jericho."

"It could be Buddha. It could be the Dalai Lama," said Twyman, himself a Seventh Day Adventist, who believes the spike in oil prices and natural disasters of late are a sign that the end of the world is nigh. "We just think there needs to be some divine intervention. Because man has become greedy. How much money do they have to make while all these people are struggling?"

But the attention prompts the question: Why, with complex, global, social, economic and political forces at work, do people care about one Maryland man and his godly mission?

"Praying anywhere but in church is not something Europeans do. It's uniquely American to involve God," said Johannes Wiebus, the German producer who captured Twyman with five fellow prayers at the gas station in Washington last week "It's an interesting way to look at it."

Germans, he noted, pay twice as much for gas and would be "jumping for joy" if they were asked to pay the equivalent of $4 a gallon.

The show is not certainly not trying to poke fun at Twyman, he said, but some Germans may wonder: "Why doesn't the government invest more in public transit? Why don't people walk? Why don't people live and work in cities?"

Maxine Grossman, a religious studies professor at the University of Maryland said the idea of praying at gas pumps "totally fascinated" her.

In a country where freedom of religion is so fundamental, "personal and sometimes idiosyncratic ways of being religious are more acceptable because diversity is the norm and there's no state church," she said.

"One of the things that might make this fascinating to people outside the U.S. is that the U.S. is a very religious place, and I think people in other countries find that unusual," she added. "Western Europe tends to be more secular as a gross generalization. ... Especially to Europeans, this kind of personal intense religiousness does not feel familiar."

The Rev. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a state delegate and the pastor of Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Randallstown, where Twyman is the organist and music director, said it wasn't clear to him why Twyman's campaign caught on.

"It's a novel idea. And it's different. When that's all you can do you do that," said Burns, who plans on combating high prices his own way - by giving away $1,000 of his own money to pay for gas for struggling motorists in his district.

Twyman's plan is a bit gentler on his pocket. The idea hit him while working at a Washington soup kitchen he frequents and listening to the other volunteers - mostly seniors - complain about how the high cost of gas was affecting them. Twyman, a freelance public relations consultant who has never been shy about publicity, called in Fox News and the Washington Post and marched with a handful of volunteers to the gas station on the corner where they did their divine business.

In a way, it's all in a day's work for Twyman, a portly, gray-haired and gregarious fellow with a booming voice and a long history of community activism - most of which is has focused on action over supplication. Though he has loads of nieces and nephews, he doesn't have a spouse or children, which he says leaves him time for the causes he is passionate about, including homelessness and bone marrow donor registration. He became interested in the latter after a close friend died of leukemia, and by his own estimate, he's roped 14,000 people into joining a national registry of donors. He also - and he's almost as proud of this - was behind the (failed) effort to nominate Oprah Winfrey for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"It comes from my mother," he said. "She just really taught us to be concerned for others."

On the face of it, the prayer drive may seem rather intangible compared to his other campaigns, but he also has big - if vague - plans to combine the spirituality with action, kind of like the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

People should carpool or walk, he said. They should drive cars other than SUVs. They should push their representatives to search for alternative fuel sources. He also has a petition up on his "pray down the high gas prices movement" Web site.

"I don't know how we're going to get this activist side started, but we're working on it," he said. "People need to make sacrifices."

His ride is a Buick LeSabre, which costs about $40 to fill up. It's the only practical way to get from Rockville to Baltimore to Washington, the commute he did last week when he had to play the organ at a funeral before the date with German television.

Technically, he could take the subway from his home to the soup kitchen where he's been going on weekly praying jaunts, but that would get in the way of the photo opportunities. "I have to fill up my pump for the story," he said. "I just feel like the results outweigh the violation."

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