Public places inspires pastor to write private prayers

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Don Shockley photo

A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

The Rev. Don Shockley, author of The Notebook of an Urban Pilgrim: Private Prayers in Public Places.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)-The Rev. Don Shockley smiles when planes get delayed, when doctors are running behind for appointments and when it takes a long time to get a cup of coffee.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young student pastor, he found that waiting in public places gave him an opportunity to stop and listen for God’s voice.

"Increasingly, I think that faithful decision of my annual conference to make me pastor of a church when I was beginning my sophomore year in college has set up a kind of dynamic that has gone throughout my life and is still very much present," he says.

In order to write his sermons he found he needed to leave his residence hall early on Sunday mornings and go to a nearby coffee shop to try and separate his academic life from his pastoral role.

Doing this made him aware of the "deeper dimension of ordinary moments." In that coffee shop and later in other public places, his thoughts "issued in a burst of almost stream-of-consciousness writing.

"I’ve written on all kinds of things, whatever was at hand; whether it was a grocery sack or a napkin or a placemat," he says. "I began to put these things into a drawer. And eventually I had a drawer full."

That drawer full of prayers is now a book, The Notebook of an Urban Pilgrim: Private Prayers in Public Places.

In the introduction, Shockley admits some people may find his method of praying "curious."

That is okay with him. "To be curious is to pay attention," he explains.

book cover

Purchase a copy of The Notebook of an Urban Pilgrim: Private Prayers in Public Places.


"I was surprised how very often in public environments I would hear something that seemed to speak to what I was thinking about," he says.

He started to realize the opportunity to wait was turning into a practice of prayer.

Shockley says his traditional understanding of "praying with your eyes closed and asking God for things" started to change when he was in college.

"I began to realize that there is a kind of spirituality or kind of praying that involves listening rather than speaking," he says. "This really came home to me when I read a book called The Listening Heart by David Steindl-Rast. He said in that book, ‘If I listen deeply to the message of any given moment, I shall tap the very source of meaning and realize the unfolding meaning of my life.’"

Shockley’s mediations have been written in airplanes, on trains, in a variety of waiting rooms, in museums and, he says, "at least on one occasion while watching a baseball game."

In sharing these prayers, he hopes others are encouraged "to stop what they are doing sometimes and just go on a 30-minute vacation in their mind."

"I think that every now and then a person should say, ‘What am I thinking about and why?’ Very often we will find that we are in a stew about some rather trivial matters when you get right down to it."

Shockley, who is now retired, served as a university chaplain at Birmingham-Southern College, University of Redlands, and Emory University before becoming campus ministry director for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. His work gave him many opportunities to travel and speak in public. He has also been asked many times to read some of his "private prayers" in public places.

"The very fact that people respond so strongly when they hear the things that I have written suggests that they could do this, too," he says.

Also in the introduction of his book he points out that many of the prayers are infused with humor.

"I am not a poet, and I make no claim to wisdom," he writes. "But I do have a capacity for delight and I hope that, as much as anything else, is what comes through in these pages."

Private Prayers in Public Places is published by iUniverse, Inc., 2021 Pine Lake Road, Suite 100, Lincoln NE 68512,

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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