Take the case of David Allen, a missionary for the Preston Road Church of Christ, in Dallas. He picked up a parasitic infection while stationed in Thailand in 1997, reports The Wall Street Journal. For about a year, he could eat little, and his weight dropped to 139 pounds from 172. "I am in constant pain," he told four colleagues in a lengthy e-mail.
His message was meant to be private, the Journal said. But it was forwarded to several Internet sites that solicit prayer on behalf of those in need. Some people posting the messages inflated the facts and added a diagnosis that Allen would "apparently die within two months" without divine help.
Now healthy, Allen appreciates the support that was directed his way, including donations that helped pay medical bills. But he also says he was "embarrassed and offended" that his illness was made so public for so long; messages describing it can still be found on many Internet sites.
Allen´s case isn´t unique, the Journal says. On the Web, prayer chains like the one that adopted Allen are whipping the most private aspects of people´s lives from site to site around the Web, often without their consent.
The popular Beliefnet.com site (www.beliefnet.com) carries postings seeking help for a "Bipolar Father and Husband" and for a fellow named Mike who "Needs Help Being Nice To People." Full names are given.
On partnersnprayer.org, (http://partnersnprayer.org), a North Carolina site, a travel agent in Colorado wants help for her husband, described as alcoholic and no longer interested in being married. Stephen, in South Carolina, posted a multisite plea recently asking for his wife´s deliverance "from anger, hurt, guilt, resentment ... so that she will be able to again feel the love she has" for him. Both posters, contacted by the Journal by telephone, acknowledge that they didn´t tell their spouses about the prayer calls, although the messages disclosed their identities.
Many cyber-supplicants praise prayer chains and say they help so many souls precisely because they have a multiplier effect. "The more people, the better," says Kathy Bryant, of Kankakee, Illinois, who begged for intercessory e-prayer for a neighbor who suffered a stroke at Christmastime. Some regard the Web as more confidential than their local communities, reasoning that nobody nearby will ever see an Internet posting.
But some pastors recoil. "This is prayer-as-talk-show, as opposed to prayer-as-community," says Donna Schaper, senior pastor of Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, Florida. "Don´t pray for me on the Internet," begs John Vannorsdall, retired chaplain at Yale University, who says he would be mortified to see his feelings described on the Web.
Many prayer sites -- also called prayer boards, prayer circles or prayer-request lines -- are associated with individual churches. Others are nondenominational. Some sites used in chains delete obviously sensitive material or keep identities anonymous, the Journal notes. But many don´t, nor do they verify the accuracy of submissions. For the most part, lawyers say it is the poster and not the site that is liable for any defamatory information.
The sites are multiplying fast, the Journal reports. A recent study of the Web sites of 1,309 congregations funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 18% had a place where people could post or respond to prayer requests, and that 22% were considering adding one.
Ekra Group Inc., a Northridge, California, Web-site designer, in November unveiled PrayersOnTheWeb.com, (www.prayersontheweb.com), which has 40 links to other commercial sites, including one to 1-800-FLOWERS. Ric Alonso, a co-owner, says Ekra receives a commission ranging from 2% to 25% of sales every time a user clicks on a commercial link, plus 2 cents every time a user clicks one of the listed search engines. A portion of the profits goes to charity, Alonso says.
Beliefnet Inc., the closely held New York firm that operates Beliefnet.com, is backed by $25 million in venture-capital funds. Martha Ainsworth, a Beliefnet administrator, told the Journal the company struggles with privacy issues.
She recalls one message poster being upset when the company wouldn´t list a patient´s hospital room out of concern that strangers might descend on the ailing patient. "We tell people not to post personally identifiable information, but they ignore us," she says.
Because many old prayer requests never die, they make any misinformation nearly impossible to correct. A year after David Allen, the missionary, took sick, his health had mostly returned. But the original request continued to mushroom uncontrollably onto numerous prayer boards, warning of his imminent death.
He was flooded with 10,000 e-mails and 2,000 letters in the first six months alone. His parents received so many telephone calls that they gave up keeping track after filling four notebooks. Even now, a secretary at his Dallas church says she still receives a half-dozen calls a month.