Asking is a Form of Prayer

By Marylouise Oates ’73 M.Div.

It was my last semester at Yale Divinity School, and I found myself in Expository Preaching.

“I don’t want to take this course,” I had whined to Harry Baker Adams, my faculty favorite—and the professor teaching the class. I complained that it wasn’t in my religious history, that I was raised and still was a Catholic.

He told me to look up some gospels and get to work.

The loaves and fishes story is indeed all about asking, about showing people the way to help. The miracle was not just in the giving, but also in the asking. 

I settled on the loaves and fishes (found in Matthew 14 and John 6). It was, a least on the surface, just another example of the miraculous powers of Christ.

But as I thought about it, I came up with a different twist. I was surprised decades later to find similar ideas, floating around on the web, but when I wrote it, it was new to me and to Harry.

It was simple: when the boy came forward with his five loaves and two fishes, the crowd became ashamed and brought out the food they had hidden under their cloaks. His generous example really raised ethical questions among the crowd. My sermon concluded: the miracle was not just in the giving, but also in the asking. 

It turns out that people are quite willing to give—as long as you ask.

So I have carried that sermon around in my head for a long time.

The Phones Lit Up

Moving to Los Angeles with my newly minted M.Div., I was asked by the California Rural Legal Assistance lawyers to set up a food stamp outreach program.

I went to an informal quartet of Protestant ministers, all committed to social justice, asking them to join in. They signed on. The lawyers and I trained volunteers from United Methodist Women agency. They would answer the two phones we installed in a church office on the USC campus.

I asked a friend who had a new job on the assignment desk at a local television station if she could cover our news conference announcing our outreach. She sent a camera crew. And that night I watched as the anchor flashed our “Hunger Hotline” phone number on the air, asking, “Hungry tonight?”

It was, in a sense, an ask too much, since 10,000 phone calls poured in overnight, jamming all USC’s phone services. Suddenly the phone company, which had demanded a large deposit for the first two phones, was only too happy to install more lines.

Activism on Deadline

The program grew. A friend I knew from the anti-war movement had opened a graphic business and I asked him to create printed handouts, a “comida strip,” he called it. I recruited seminary students, including two Mexican men studying to be Catholic priests. They were all tasked with handing out the fliers to people standing in line at welfare offices. I urged as many of them as I could to wear a clerical collar. No welfare apparatchik was going to throw a cleric out.

Over the next few years I made my way back to a paying job in journalism. Thank goodness the internet search engines did not exist in 1980, or the Los Angles Times would never have hired me.

First I was a part-time copy editor on the “View” section. I believe my Yale degree, not my three years experience at United Press International in the 1960s, gave the bosses a rationale for offering me the job. I quickly moved into a full-time writing gig, on the Society staff.

Los Angeles high society focused largely on philanthropic efforts—glittering benefits for cultural institution topping the list. Studios and their execs, along with their wives, sponsored and chaired the galas.

But American society was changing, and I used my writing to feature new social justice initiatives, a way of inviting—asking—givers to broaden their commitments. I wrote about the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, the first such organization in the nation, working with law enforcement agencies to remove the stigma from women who had been sexually abused. I wrote about the Downtown Women’s Center on Skid Row, the Los Angeles neighborhood where women living on the street suddenly had a storefront that served up nutritious meals, and volunteers who would help with Medicare applications and hospital visits, while offering a place off the street to sit and rest. 

I wrote about Mexican quinceañeras, celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday, and about Black sororities. All this opened the View’s front page to whole new worlds, both for the women covered in the pieces and for the readers.

When AIDS struck, I wrote about the amazing work by people in what was then called the lesbian and gay community to help those struck down by the epidemic.

Vital Voices

As I moved into covering political money in 1984, I learned about fund-raising—how if you didn’t ask, you didn’t receive. (That might not be a spiritual revelation, but it is certainly one that carries forth the spirit of social change.)

After I moved to Washington with my husband, the Democratic political strategist Bob Shrum, I enlisted in the effort to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. I co-authored two murder mysteries, cooked a lot of dinners, joined the board of the Whitman Walker Aids Clinic.

Then in 1998, First Lady Hillary Clinton invited me to her first conference for Vital Voices, an organization that invests globally in supporting women in leadership and political roles. The meeting was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Peace Agreement had just been signed—and for the first time, the political process there was becoming genuinely open to women.

At the end of the weekend, the Northern Irish women who were there carried me off to Derry, land of my grandmother. And on that trek I began to see the complex challenges confronting women, both Protestant and Catholic, who wanted to be involved in politics. So I raised money, and got Bob and his partners to give me office space. For several years, amazing volunteers, dozens of brand-name politicians and journalists, responded to my next ask. They trained the aspiring women, both in their visits to D.C. and in meetings in Northern Ireland.

In Washington, where public funds were always available for Ireland, I asked friends in the Senate to get significant funding moved from cultural events in the Republic of Ireland to programs helping women and ex-prisoners in Northern Ireland. And they did just that.

17,000 in L.A.

When Bob and I returned permanently to Los Angeles in 2013, I joined the board of the Downtown Women’s Center. The work of the DWC has increased a hundred-fold, as the numbers of women living on the streets is now around 17,000.

I made it my business to raise money for permanent housing as well as for the thousands and thousands of meals the DWC serves, for medical care, for aid in applying for government assistance and for staff resources.

So back to those loaves and fishes: whether you choose to believe the literal story from the New Testament, or my version, it is indeed all about asking, about showing people the way to help. And they do.

My mother was always quick to offer to say a prayer when someone had a problem. Sometimes a person would complain about the prayer not being answered, and she would reply: “God answers all prayers. No is as much an answer as yes.”

For me, asking is a form of prayer. 

Marylouise Oates ’73 M.Div., a journalist, novelist, and activist for many causes, serves on the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council and is this year’s recipient of the School’s William Sloane Coffin ’56 Award for Peace and Justice.