FORTALEZA, Brazil (BP) — During their daily walks, Rob and Phyllis Hefner have been mugged, physically assaulted and narrowly escaped an attempted kidnapping. During a robbery, a woman held a knitting needle to Phyllis’ throat.
The Hefners, who walk 20 or more miles five or six days each week, serve as International Mission Board missionaries in Fortaleza, Brazil, a city of 3 million people.
The couple, who are in their 50s, begin walking after breakfast and end about 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
They walk until 7 p.m. on Friday.
When they don’t have other commitments, they walk all day Saturday as well.
As they walk, they pray for Fortaleza.
For the Hefners, it is literally the first step toward reaching people for Christ.
They are among a multitude of Baptists worldwide who engage in prayerwalking.
The Hefners’ routine began shortly after the Charlotte, N.C., natives moved to Brazil in 1991. During their walks they began seeking God’s direction for their ministry. Even before that — back when they were appointed as missionaries in 1985 — they prayed regularly as they walked for exercise.
“We didn’t call it [prayerwalking] back then,” Phyllis remembers, “but as we were called to missions, we began walking and praying for God’s leadership. After that, we just kept walking farther and farther — and just kept praying.”
In Fortaleza, the Hefners’ 20-mile journeys sometimes begin with a strategy; sometimes the duo simply depend on God’s direction.
Four specific prayer points are part of each walk. First, they pray that God will show them the area He wants them to focus on. Secondly, they ask Him to tear down the walls of lostness in the hearts of the people. They then pray to establish relationships to prepare the way for the Gospel. Finally they ask God to connect them with those who need to hear about Him.
The journeys are not without their perils, and often the Hefners’ walks lead them into areas of the city where even the police hesitate to visit. Phyllis says she used to pray for protection but now asks for boldness when they enter places where it is likely they will be targeted.
“If we become afraid to prayerwalk and get out in these areas, then there would be so many miraculous things that would not happen,” Phyllis says.
“You get to meet the people. You get to see the needs. You physically get to see what you’re praying for,” she continues.
“If I’m in my house, God hears my prayers, and I think I know what I’m praying for…. But if I’m in the house, I would never get to meet the people that I meet.”
The Hefners take advantage of prayerwalking opportunities to stop and talk to people on the street — from beggars to shopkeepers and restaurant workers. They don’t give out money. Phyllis carries a bag of protein bars to hand out to the hungry. It allows her to befriend people who approach her. She then asks how she might pray for them and follows up with them on her next visit to the area.
While prayerwalking takes up a good chunk of their day, it isn’t all the Hefners do.
Rob works as a church planter and as a professor of church planting at a local seminary. In teaching prayerwalking as a mission strategy, he has seen 85 student teams begin ministries in areas where he and his wife have walked. The ministries range from church planting to working with the homeless and providing crutches to people with missing legs.
In the future, the Hefners plan to extend their ministry by driving to different starting points and taking new routes.
“Please pray for direction, health, protection and boldness as we continue to discover new prayer routes,” Phyllis says. “Please pray that we might be light and salt to those with whom we come into contact, so that they might come to know Jesus as their personal Savior.”
Emily Pearson is an International Mission Board writer living in the Americas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).