National News

Ribbons of Hope and Prayer Fill a Manhattan Sidewalk

Posted March 30, 2018 9:08 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It was a sign that Rita Prats had recently eyed with intrigue while walking down Second Avenue in Manhattan: “Plaza Prayers for Lent.”

On the morning of Good Friday, she decided to follow its instructions, grabbing a pen and purple ribbon from the available box. “This one is for my older brother, Alfredo, who died yesterday,” she said, as she wrote. “I just want to thank him for the wonderful things he did during his life, and just how much he enjoyed his life.”

Prats, 52, of East Harlem, then tied her purple ribbon to one of the many handrails and short birch trees outside the Church of the Epiphany, an age-old Roman Catholic church in Gramercy Park, joining thousands of others before her who, for the last four weeks, have turned the church’s outside plaza into a public display of deeply felt love and loss.

“Many cities, like Paris and London, have something like this, but New York City doesn’t. You’d get a summons if you did this anywhere,” Prats said, nodding to the ribbons behind her. “It’s a public expression that’s missing in this city, where we can say our hopes and feelings. People really need that.”

The sentiments varied in subject, with most concerning hardship on a more personal level. “Please keep my father safe and alive during his upcoming heart surgeries,” one read; another said, “I hope my grandmother gets better every day.” Several others addressed the anguish of the daily news cycle. “I pray for the victims of the Parkland shooting,” someone wrote. “To the lives lost in Syria,” said another.

Angelo Guzzo, 47, of Manhattan, held back tears when he tried to explain the ribbon he quickly signed Friday. “It’s just for my two sons, my wife, and my mother, who’s battling cancer,” he said. “I’m not really religious, but I just think every little thing helps.”

The ribbons were the idea of the Rev. James Mayzik, who arrived at the church in September from Fairfield, Connecticut. There, he had asked his congregants to do something they weren’t used to: write down personal prayers — ones that went beyond broad calls for world peace — on a small piece of paper and hand them to him.

“I left with stacks of prayers,” he recalled. “And I realized just how emotional they were. ‘My son won’t talk to me.’ ‘We can’t pay our mortgage.’ I’d get choked up, and couldn’t finish reading them.”

When he came to the Church of the Epiphany, Mayzik, 56, wanted to try the same exercise, but on a grand scale. He hung a few ribbons up first himself, and invited passers-by to participate with just a box and a sign. Thousands showed up. “It just shows that we’re all walking around here with these problems,” he said outside of the church Friday. “But it’s all of us here. We’re all in this together.” On Easter Sunday, Mayzik plans to tie different colored ribbons around a large cross in the plaza’s center and leave them up for 50 days. He hopes to preserve the prayers in some way, he said, and return next year with more.

Karen Bettilyon slowly strolled through the plaza on her way out of services on Friday, reading as many ribbons as she could.

One, written by a child, asked for students and teacher to be safe from gun violence, she said. Another prayed for the families in Puerto Rico who were still struggling in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

“Just the difference in people’s prayers is what really strikes me,” Bettilyon said. “You really feel this mass of humanity, with their hopes, and worries.”

Visiting her daughter from Chicago, Bettilyon, 57, said she had looked for a service to attend for Good Friday, but had not known about the “prayer plaza” at the Church of the Epiphany beforehand.

“It was something I wasn’t expecting to see or feel in New York, to be honest,” she said of the countless ribbons waving in the wind. “And this is just one corner of New York City. Think of all the prayers in the world.”