River Jordan has made a name for herself as a fiction writer and playwright, never dreaming she’d share anything about her personal life to her readers. Now, she’s dared to reach beyond her comfort zone to pen a motivational memoir, Praying for Strangers.
I wish I had read it prior to May, so that I could have listed it as one of my most inspirational reads of all time. I read this book cover to cover and think it will top my gift list for friends and family members. It’s a book that, above all else, reminds us of the need for universal kindness.
In this personal memoir, Jordan manages to scrape away our shells and prove, once and for all, that we are all the same…hurting, searching, and longing for deeper connections.
Jordan generously took time from her hectic schedule to discuss her latest work with Southern Lit Review. We hope you enjoy a peek at our conversation.
SLR: You are known as a talented fiction writer, with several successful Southern Gothic novels under your belt, a fabulous radio show, and a long-line of writing credits from stage to page. Yet, I have a feeling that this piece of nonfiction, Praying for Strangers, will be among the most important of your life’s work. Do you agree? And do you plan to write more nonfiction?
RJ: Can I say, with a smile, I half-heartedly agree? I can tell you that I completely agree when it comes to people reading and being so affected by the words that it gives them hope and helps them connect with humanity again or in a new way.
The letters pouring in from readers point to what you are saying being true. I love these stories and also the way that readers have responded to those – some re-reading their favorite books again each year. Amazing to me. But this book has struck a surprising chord and identified a need I never knew was there.
And yes, during the book tour I realized driving those last, lonely miles that i would write another non-fiction book. I started it yesterday (May 30).
SLR: In the book, you voice your hesitancy to dive into the realm of spiritual writing, having always considered faith a private matter. You’ve shared your worry about seeming crazy when you confess to perfect strangers that you are praying for them. And, at the end of the book, you give your answer to all the folks who ask, “Just how religious are you?”
“Not very,” I say. “And that’s the truth. Me and religion don’t cozy. Me and the mystery? Well, that’s a different story.”
I’m fascinated by the fact that throughout this entire journey, everyone you encountered (except one) was completely open to the idea that you were praying for them. They not only accepted this as a positive idea (rather than a creepy one, as you had feared), but they welcomed you into their personal lives and their stories. They showed you their scars (literally).
Your willingness to reach out on such an intimate level to these strangers enabled the unimaginable. It enabled a real connection on a level we rarely reach anymore.
Time and time again, religious faiths are represented by the fanatics, the extremist. It’s no wonder most of us have become jaded to the idea of publicizing our faith, of admitting we believe in something bigger than ourselves. Yet, when it came down to it, everyone you met was not only accepting of your faith, but inspired by it, as if they’d been out there all this time just waiting for a sign. Waiting for someone to say out loud…I’m praying for you.
Ultimately, the year would have been an entirely different experience had you chosen to simply pray for these people in silence. Have you been surprised by everyone’s reaction and has it changed your mind about the need to open up more publicly about your faith?
RJ: I have been surprised by the responses. Because they are so universally the same – “thank you” or ” I needed that!” Or my favorite – “Funny, you should choose me.” Which is usually followed by a story of why on that particular day, or that season, that person really needed a prayer or a good word from a stranger.
The reaction from people I think is because I don’t come across as religious in a bad way. (And please don’t get me wrong on that.) The deal is I’m never praying for someone to change. To vote the way I might vote on a given year – (and don’t even try to figure that one out), or to dress differently, drive what I drive, live my lifestyle. They must really get that right up front. And I always say – Later, I’ll be thinking of you and praying for all good things in your life. For you to have a really great year. That kind of thing.
I don’t feel any stronger about being public with my faith outside the realm of speaking or talking about the inspiration of my book. But I have become much more relaxed about discussing it in public within those areas.
SLR: You spent a year praying for strangers, and it happened to be a year in which strangers should have been praying for you. For your sons. With one deployed to Iraq and the other to Afghanistan, you touch on the excruciating journey that was for you as their mother. Give us an update on your sons. Are they both home again, safe and sound? And do you find comfort in the fact that now, perhaps because you dared show your soul to the world, the world is now praying for you and your sons?
RJ: I’ve had such an outpouring of heartfelt prayers from people. I do appreciate it that so much. At the moment both sons are stateside but one is deploying to Afghanistan in a few weeks.
SLR: In the beginning of your year of prayer, you were haunted by the sounds of a little boy in blue shoes being abused by his caregiver. The story is heart wrenching, and yet, your book has given that little boy a voice. I imagine you have received letters, emails, and comments about this boy, and I’m guessing there are thousands of readers praying for his well-being at this very moment.
I can’t help but hope you cross his path again someday, that perhaps he grows up to live a happy life and finds you, years from now, and says, “River Jordan, I’m the little boy in blue shoes. Thank you.”
But the universality of his story is that we are surrounded by such needs every day, in such volumes that our souls can be stretched too thin from trying to fill the holes all around us. How do you choose just one, just one special person for each day? And have you evolved to praying for more?
RJ: First, regarding the boy, I would love to cross paths with little ‘Blue Shoes’ again someday and hear that his life had made a turn for the better. I am inspired by how many people have read this book and started to pray for him. As one woman said at a book signing that my one prayer for him was like a flashlight but now that so many people were praying of him it was a like a powerful searchlight had been turned on. If I ever met him I’d actually have to tell him that he was the soul reason I agreed to follow through with this resolution idea.
Second, regarding choosing one person, there are days I pray for more than one person silently. I would like to actually ‘evolve’ if you will to where I lived, moved, and breathed through a wave of prayer as I encountered people. But I only tell one person. I can’t explain how that person stands out to me or if I just decide it’s the cashier at the store who may be the last person I see before I go home. My best answer to this question as people are so interested is that I encourage them to go through their day with their eyes open, really open, to the people around them. I would be really amazed if one person during that day didn’t somehow stand out to them for them to remember with a prayer or loving thoughts.
SLR: I can’t help but think of your husband when I read this book. It sounds as if he was the person who offered the nudge (or many nudges) for you to give this New Year’s Resolution a try. He stepped aside time and again to give you time to connect with these strangers. He listened at the end of each day to your “stranger stories” and encouraged you to write them down, admitting at times that no one was going to believe them. And he guided you, it seems, to a place of spiritual truth with his own gentle support. Has he also started to pray for strangers and how has this experience changed him?
RJ: My husband is a mountain man and a bit of a bear, so hearing him described as ‘gentle is kind of funny. But he certainly is that too. He has believed in this book from the moment of it’s inception and long before I did or before I saw the big picture. He talks about the book to people everywhere and believes that it perfectly captures how we have lost our ability to connect with people in the real world to a large degree preferring the network of social media to a handshake and a smile. He continues to believe strongly in the power of prayer.