A voice told her how to put the wooden hearts she had in her shop to use. But little did she know those tiny hearts were the start of something big.
Posted in , Apr 27, 2020
The fire that overtook my little gift shop on Main Street that evening last June burned fast and hot. The spray from the firefighters’ hoses turned the air wet with steam. The street was blocked in both directions. Still, the streets were lined with friends and townspeople, all concerned for my staff and me.
A police officer guided me to a location where I could watch as the firefighters put out the last flames. I stood maybe 50 feet away. I was grateful my staff was safe. But everything I’d worked for was gone.
What are you doing here, Lord? I thought.
I looked to the right of the shop, to the leafy tree between my boutique, Take Heart, and the bank next door. Its branches sagged from the weight of thousands of paper tags in plastic sleeves, each one with a handwritten prayer. The hopes of so many people… what if they went up in flames too? I thought of everything that had happened in the past year. So many blessings. God’s love, his grace, so evident. Was there room for one more miracle?
One night a year earlier, in July 2018, I was working late in the shop, when my hand fell on a bag of plain wooden hearts with string loops for hanging. These had been collecting dust for months, along with another three or four bags. There had to be at least 100 hearts.
I’d wanted the hearts to bring joy and hope to people, but something was missing. “Why aren’t you selling?” I said aloud.
Instantly an answer came. Put them in a bowl in the garden. That was the way God always talked to me. “That’s random,” I said. I just couldn’t make sense of it.
I’d felt distant from God lately, my mind distracted. I’d been selling gifts and decorative items for more than 20 years, and I’d always thought of my business as an opportunity to share my faith with my customers. I kept a sign in my front window that said “Free Hugs,” and people streamed in to get them. I wanted to feel as if I made a difference, that I was serving God. But what he wanted me to do with these hearts was puzzling. I left the bags in the store and went home.
The next morning, Saturday, I headed out of town. In the car, I thought of those hearts again. If I ignored that message, it would lie heavy on my own heart the whole trip. I called my store manager and asked if she would put the hearts in a bowl outside the shop. When I’d opened my business, I’d planted a tree—it was a chocolate vine, actually, but grew rapidly—next to an arbor beside the building. Paired with a couple of chairs, it provided a shady “garden” for people to relax.
“And put a pen and a card in the bowl with the words ‘Prayers? Wishes?’” I added to the store manager. It flew out of my mouth without my even thinking about it. Sunday night, driving home, I came down Main Street. My headlights flashed on the tree beside my shop. What on earth? Hanging from its branches were the hearts, dozens of them. It was incredible.
I parked, walked over to the tree and looked at one of the hearts. Someone had written on it: “I pray for my sweet mom’s body to be rid of disease. Jesus, all things are possible with you.” Wow. All 100 hearts, hanging from the tree. Prayers on every one. “We pray for a successful adoption. We love him so.” “I pray we all come together as one.” “I pray that my mema (grandma) will always be in memory and loved.” “For my sister grieving the miscarriage of her baby boy.”
I felt honored that so many people had chosen this tree outside my shop to share something so personal and heartfelt. There was a sense of responsibility too. God was up to something. What it was, I couldn’t fully grasp. But I was pretty sure this wasn’t the end of it. What should I do next? I didn’t have any more wooden hearts, but I could get paper tags.
The next day, I purchased a couple hundred paper tags and put them out under the tree. Within two days, people had added their prayers to them and hung them from the tree. I bought out every tag from every store around. Nearly every day, there were people lined up, waiting to leave their prayers on the tree. In two weeks, there were nearly a thousand prayers.
I went online and ordered tags in bulk. I got plastic sleeves to protect the tags from rain. I worried a bit about how it looked, thousands of slips of paper flapping in the breeze, right on Main Street. Blowing Rock has been voted North Carolina’s most beautiful town. It’s right on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A favorite spot for tourists. And my shop was across the street from city hall. But nearly every one I heard from was supportive. News spread about the prayer tree, bringing even more people to Blowing Rock.
A TV reporter from Charlotte, two hours away, came to do a story. “Why is everyone doing this?” she asked, a bit skeptically.
I was about to answer when her hand went to one of the tags. “My grandma Ruby died a month ago,” she read aloud. “I miss her so much.”
“My grandma died a month ago,” the reporter said. “And her name was… Ruby.” She paused. “We’re all connected, aren’t we?” she said. “It’s easy to forget.”
I nodded. I felt such a connection to the people leaving prayers. My staff and I read and prayed over the new prayers each morning. Some were from people with cancer. I lifted them up to God. Though I knew I likely would never meet them, I hoped they would know they weren’t alone.
More than 1,000 new prayers were added each month. The population of Blowing Rock is only 1,200. Some of the tags followed up on earlier ones. People who had found living organ donors after posting a prayer. Who had been healed of chronic pain. Overcome addiction. Infertile couples now expecting. Singles who had found their soul mates. There was sadness too. People who’d lost loved ones. But even then, there was a sense of comfort, of community.
In the spring, a middle-aged man came into the shop. “I wrote a prayer a few months back about my cancer,” he said. “I’ve never been so scared. Well, I just wanted you to know I’m in remission. Those prayers saved my life.”
My mind flashed back to that first cryptic message. Put the hearts in a bowl. Only God could have seen what would grow out of a small tree and a bunch of wooden hearts and paper tags. “It’s nothing I did,” I said. “But I’m so very happy for you. God has blessed you.”
Now on this June night, I looked again at the tree, just a few feet from the burned-out shop. I’d worked a full day and been on my way home when an employee called. “The store is on fire!”
The leaves had turned to ash. The branches were scorched and black. But the plastic sleeves? They hadn’t melted; they’d protected the tags from the fire hoses. How? How had more than 10,000 prayers escaped the flames? I lifted my head to the heavens. I knew exactly how.
In the months since the fire, the prayer tree has continued to touch people’s lives. Today its branches hold more than 30,000 prayers, nearly triple the number before the fire. The outpouring of love I’ve received has been overwhelming. The community that rose around the tree has only grown stronger. Some of the couples who met after posting prayers have gotten married beside the shell of the shop.
This month, we’re starting a website, theprayertree.com, for people anywhere to “post” prayers to the tree. And the man who had cancer? Turns out, he’s a builder and wants to help us reopen.
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.