Check out what’s going on in a back room at Ace Motors. It’s not church. Or is it?
Having financial problems? Health problems? Marital problems? No need to get all gussied up to go to church. Just log on to Liveprayer.com, 24 hours a day, every day, and get in touch with God, or at least someone who will pray for you.
If, as they say, a Web site can be started by anyone, anywhere, Liveprayer.com fits the bill.
Anywhere is a tiny room in the back of Ace Motors, a used car lot at 6660 46th Ave. N in St. Petersburg, a shabby white building surrounded by older-model cars. Anyone is Bill Keller, the brains behind the Web site, who says he found God and decided to devote his life to ministry when he was doing federal prison time for fraud.
His site, billed as the “World’s Prayer Meeting,” gets hits from all over the world, 10,000 a day by Keller’s count. And that’s just the beginning. If the donations roll in, he foresees an Internet studio rising amid the rusty Ford Thunderbirds and Dodge Darts.
For now he gets by with a video camera on a tripod, set up in a wood-paneled office at the back of Ace Motors.
His philosophy, to those who might not share his vision: “Jesus was born in a manger and he changed the world.” Liveprayer.com can do the same.
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“She will be totally set free of Epstein-Barr Syndrome,” Garnet Blakley says in answer to an e-mail from South Carolina. “Something is happening in this girl’s life, I rebuke her from her past.”
A few minutes later, Blakley prays for a couple in Ohio who want a lower interest rate for a home loan. Blakley, pastor of Victory Fellowship Church in Clearwater, is the preacher of the day on Liveprayer.com.
Non-denominational prayer sites like Keller’s are popping up all over the Internet, though Keller says none offer a live video feed like his.
There’s God.com.; Godspeaks.com; Jesus-is-God.com; and love-god.com. Even the Roman Catholic Church, more traditional in its rituals, is using the Internet to spread the word, offering sermons and soliciting prayer requests on Web sites.
Some theologians caution about clicking onto these sites, especially ones not affiliated with a church. They say it can be risky for vulnerable people to pour their hearts out to strangers.
Many of the prayer sites are geared to people who want something but have no desire to give anything spiritual, says Anne Foerst, a Lutheran theologian who teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I call these Web sites “prayer light,’ ” Foerst says. “It is a very reduced understanding of prayer. You log on and you ask for something. That is not necessarily what prayer is about. My experience is that true religion comes in community and commitment.”
Keller, 41, says his site helps people, especially shut-ins and young people.
“There’s a whole generation, 40 and under, that the church has dropped the ball on for the most part,” he says. “We’re dealing with that segment.”
Keller, formerly of Schaumburg, Ill., moved to Clearwater in 1994, two years after his release from prison in Chicago, where he served nearly three years for securities and mail fraud.
He ran Global Investment, which sold unregistered securities in the form of investment contracts, according to court records. He scammed in excess of $175,000 and defrauded vendors of office supplies worth hundreds of thousands more, according to the records, moving the money through banks on the Grand Cayman Islands.
After about a year behind bars, Keller says, he found God. He got an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Liberty University while still in prison and went into evangelism when he got out.
He produced and co-hosted You & Me, a live call-in prayer program, as well as other Christian television programs. He set up a 900-number Christian service, which was modeled after psychic hotlines but offered Biblical advice instead, and he preached at revivals around the country.
Eventually came his epiphany. He could combine his knowledge of television with the Internet. What other ministry could reach untold numbers of people, all over the world?
“There are a lot of Christian Web sites, but they’re all pretty passive,” he says. “This is the only one with a live prayer feed.”
Ace Motors is owned by one of his board members. In the back office that serves as the studio, a camera points at that day’s non-denominational preacher, or other volunteers, on duty around the clock.
When Keller went to register the site name and found out that http://www.liveprayer.com was still available, he took it as a sign from God.
His company is registered as a non-profit religious organization. Keller says he hopes to make enough money through his donations to cover expenses and pay himself a modest amount.
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People e-mail prayer requests and, via the live feed, watch for the minister or volunteer of the day to answer them on air.
At the site, visitors can listen to taped inspirational devotionals, and they can dedicate a prayer to a loved one. The person’s name appears at the top of the Web site for a day. For this privilege, Keller suggests a $50 donation.
He responds to e-mails himself. “This is about as pure as it gets,” he says, browsing through e-mail from people talking about everything from a father battling cancer to infidelity. “Real people in real situations at a critical time in their lives. We try to give them hope.”
He says he’s always impressed by the candor.
“They might be embarrassed to talk face to face with their pastor, but here they can say whatever they want because they’re only known by their screen name.”
Getting the live feed was difficult. He had to use City-Guide ISP, the one Tampa company that has the ability to transmit live video feeds. His dilemma was that it is the same company that contracts with such X-rated Web sites as Voyeur Dorm.
He says he decided to use City-Guide when a quote from the Book of Genesis popped into his head: “What man meant for evil, God meant for good.”