A path to answered prayer: Pastor invites all to join 40-Day Lenten prayer challenge

February 22, 2023 | | Deepen Faith, GNJ News

The Rev. Nova Villa Vitug-Thomas, pastor of Ignite Community   Corbin Payne photo

People often wonder if God is listening to our prayers, if God hears us, and most important, if God will answer.  The Rev. Nova Villa Vitug-Thomas, pastor of Ignite United Methodist Church of Kenilworth, is giving us all an opportunity to find out.

Pastor Nova, as she is known, is impacting her community through the annual 40-Day Prayer Challenge she initiated last year. Starting Feb. 22, participants can read a chapter a day from Mark Batterson’s book Draw the Circle and then pray together.

Each reading is 2-3 pages long and takes about 5-10 minutes, just long enough to read, pray and become inspired. The book teaches us how to pray humbly and how to hear what God wants us to do.  “Last year, it was such an awesome and amazing answer that we received from God,” said Pastor Nova.  “So, we want to continue it every year.”

Participants will have different options for how to get involved. The first is to join the church’s group prayer on Zoom at 6 p.m. nightly, except on Sundays. The second option is to join the 40 Days of Lent Prayer Walk Challenge, happening daily at the church at 10:30 a.m. (again, except on Sundays).

Prayer becomes a daily workout for the soul

The third option is simply DIY (do it yourself)—that is, commit to finding a time each day to pray on your own. It’s like a commitment we make to better ourselves through daily exercise; but in this case, prayer becomes a daily workout for the soul. Pastor Nova believes daily prayer, like healthy eating, can sustain us and change our lives for the better.

She invites everyone to participate, whatever their beliefs. “The 40-day Prayer Challenge is going to change your life,” she promises, quoting from Draw the Circle. “In fact, the next 40 days have the potential to dramatically alter the rest of your life.”

Pastor Nova was one of the pioneers who started the Kenilworth Interfaith Fellowship, and she is proud that they are community-based, bringing people together through connection and prayer. The town’s mayor, chief of police and superintendent of schools are members, along with pastors and people of different faiths. Ultimately, she hopes members take away from this experience “a deeper relationship and walk with God, being sensitive to God’s answer to our prayers.”

God does listen and does answer prayer

In this pastor’s experience, God does listen and does answer prayer, sometimes offering “more than we even ask for.”  Sometimes we don’t get the answers we expect, in the way we expect them to arrive. But, she says, “God always has something up his sleeve.”

Pastor Nova shared several prayers that God answered in ways that were more profound than she imagined. She recalled praying for needed renovations to the church, not knowing where they would come from, since the church had saved limited funds. But instead, her prayers were answered in a surprising way, through the hands of people in the community.

The pastor and other residents go on a walk each morning, blessing the homes of their neighbors. They offer families bags of popcorn tagged with a Pinterest-worthy note that reads, “We hope you pop into our church.” They pray for every home they visit; and, in turn, she gets calls and email messages from grateful people. In 2020 they offered “Ashes-to-Go” to neighbors on Ash Wednesday.

One day while walking, she encountered Kenilworth Police Chief Fred Soos Jr., who expressed appreciation for what they were doing in the community and acknowledged that good things could come from prayer. She told him she was praying for the church’s ability to renovate their facility in time for their first Easter Community Breakfast. In that brief encounter Pastor Nova would find her answer.

Soon after, the police department offered to help get the church’s kitchen painted in time for its Easter breakfast. Chief Soos connected them with A Touch of Color, a company that looks for a place of worship to help renovate each year. The chief of police, another officer, the police union president and other volunteers all pitched in to help.

Toni Sosnovsky

Meanwhile, Toni Sosnosky, a 75-year-old woman who came to paint, told the pastor she had never been baptized. Pastor Nova decided to baptize her as a new church member, a deeply moving experience for them both. Sosnosky, whose father was Jewish and mother was Catholic and whose husband had died the year before, said she “found a new family” at Ignite UMC. A new paint job led to a new life in Christ.

Another prayer was answered last November, when Pastor Nova and the church searched for a way to remove a dead tree from their premises—the biggest tree in Kenilworth.  Removal could cost up to $6,000. But the police officers who had helped paint the church joined the superintendent of Public Works and the owner of Caffrey Trees to remove the dead tree and clean up the area, free of charge.

Chief Soos (second from left) with other Faith & Blue partners who helped Ignite UMC with painting and repair needs.

It was another project for the Faith & Blue organization, through which faith and law enforcement leaders partner in building bridges to help create a more inclusive community.  For helping to lift the enormous weight of that tree off the church’s shoulders, Bob Caffrey had only one request of Pastor Nova: “Just say a prayer for this Irish guy.”

And pray for him she has. In fact, during the entire week of Thanksgiving, the church thanked all their helpful community leaders, giving them appreciation awards along with their prayers.

After all this, yet another prayer was answered, something Pastor Nova had long hoped for but never thought would happen. “It was my dream to be a chaplain, but I thought that was so high for me to reach,” she said. “But God makes things happen.” The police chief recently offered her this position. She is excited about this hard to believe answered prayer and elated about her future role.

Ignite UMC’s 2022 40-Day prayer challenge is still reaping blessings, including new families who have joined the church. “We asked for vitality and received five families,” Pastor Nova said, showing her awe of God’s bountiful answers to prayer.

I see God’s miracles everyday

“It’s really overwhelming,” she said. “Yet, I’m almost used to God’s miracles; I see them every day. And now we are receiving two more families.  God is so good.  And this year, our prayer focus is growth—spiritual and numerical growth in our relationships with each other, with the community and with God.”

As for the money the church did not have to spend on renovations, they will put it to good use by repairing the roof and multipurpose hall but also by paying it forward to the community–including funding for their Community Care Pantry, their ESL program, and their proposed after-school program for children and youth.

Ignite UMC, a merger of Springfield Immanuel UMC and Community UMC of Kenilworth, has become a beacon of light in its community. Its mission is “to be a living representation of God in the community.”

Springfield Immanuel would have turned 196 this year, and Kenilworth Community would have turned 111. But God is doing a new thing at 5-year-old Ignite UMC. “We are walking very slowly so everyone is on the same page and seeing what God has been doing in our midst,” said Pastor Nova. “God is good and always available to answer prayer. We just don’t know how God will give those answers and from whose hands they will come.” As members have seen God use different people to “to bless our church, I believe they became closer to God.”

This is a real witness to what prayer can do

Pastor Nova feels blessed to be a part of what God is doing.  “I believe this is just the beginning,” she said. “This is a real witness to what prayer can do.  It is hard to have faith and humility at the same time. You have to know your God. He loves us and wants the best for us.”

She invites everyone to come to know that truth by joining in Ignite UMC’s 40-Day Prayer Challenge and thus, experience the hope and gift of transformation. “When we pray, we don’t change God. God changes us.”

Join the 40-Day Prayer Challenge daily Zoom meeting at: https://zoom.us/j/749308740. Or visit the church for its 40 Days of Lent Prayer Walk. Just contact Pastor Nova at 201-699-6704 or at novavillavi@gmail.com.