Businesswoman Veronica Williams sold a warehouse and downsized her home to start a Christian movement for mothers that has now gone global. Jane Bell finds out what she'll be saying in Belfast next week
Veronica Williams realised it was time to make changes in her life after reading a book inviting the reader to write their own epitaph - to say how they thought others would remember them after they had died.
" To my horror, I realised that they would probably say that I was a good businesswoman," she says. "I was really shocked. I'd never thought about this before. I was quite upset and thought 'I don't want to be remembered like this!'"
How Veronica would like to be remembered was a different matter. "So I wrote I wanted to be remembered as a good mother and grandmother and that my life would have meant something especially with regard to children."
It was a rather painful period in her life: "I was very confused at this time and was trying desperately to be happy. I had to please many awkward people - trying to be this for one person and that for another. I felt that I was wearing too many masks and this, in some ways, was compromising who I was. I remember thinking I don't know who I am any more."
While a non-believer might have seen this simply as a mid-life crisis, Veronica turned to prayer: "Lord, I want to be the person you created me to be, not the person that I have become." It proved a turning point.
It was in 1995 that the mother of three adult children and grandmother-of-nine, and her sister-in-law, Sandra, also a grandmother, both quite independently came to the conclusion that, given the challenges and threats of the modern world, they needed to do something for children.
Veronica had become involved with the Maranatha community which had produced a booklet - later presented to the House of Lords - called What on earth are we doing to our children?, containing horrifying statistics about children's lives from bullying to drug abuse to suicide.
"About this time my sister-in-law told me that she had been awakened in the night on two occasions with the words 'Pray for your children'."
The two prayed every day for a month for guidance, saying: "Lord, you are the Boss and we will be your secretaries."
That was the seed of Mothers Prayers, an interdenominational movement, now operating in 86 countries and 25 languages. "People come to us. I certainly see now how the Lord has honoured this surrender - it is impossible for two grandmothers in their own strength to achieve the wonderful things that have happened since we started," Veronica writes in her book The Joy of Surrender unto Him, published by the charity, the Solace Community.
Answers to prayers, Veronica relates, have included children coming off drugs, leaving bad relationships, even returning home after they have been missing for several years and "many wonderful answers to health problems even when the doctors have said that there was no hope.
"We have been told of married couples on the point of separating, or couples already separated, who have now renewed their marriage commitment to each other. There have been many cases, too, of young people who have been living together deciding to get married."
Veronica sold a warehouse she owned and downsized her home to help raise initial funds to start the Community. (Something I discover from their literature, she doesn't mention it.)
"Sometimes people have said to me that they felt that I was good to be able to let go of my financial security. But, after I had surrendered, I felt that everything I owned belonged to the Lord anyway and so, if he wanted me to sell the warehouse to buy the centre, then that was fine by me," she writes. "We are, after all, only stewards of His money and I really feel that the Lord had put everything in place years before in readiness for the time we would need the money to buy the centre."
The Community depends on volunteers and there has also been a steady stream of donations, though its publications are offered free of charge to those who are unable to contribute financially. "The important thing is that we join together in prayer to pray for our children."
But why is community prayer necessary? Isn't a solitary mother's prayer heard equally? And all mothers - Christian or not - will have times when they pray fervently for their child: when they are lost, ill, in pain or under pressure.
Veronica answers: "Mothers say, 'But I've always prayed for my children.' Yes, I know. I've always prayed for mine. But I know now I didn't pray in faith - but when there was a problem, 'Lord, help!' And I would ask 'What shall I do?' So, I was giving my problem to the Lord with one hand and taking it back with the other.
"It's good to come together. The Lord says 'When two or three are gathered in my name, I'm there.' As we've grown we realise Mothers Prayers is as much a blessing for mothers as it is for children. There is so much pain in women's hearts.
"As mothers and grandmothers we are encouraged to boast - 'my son's at university' and so on. It's very hard to say 'my son's a drug addict'. Often when we're asked 'How are you?' we automatically reply 'I'm fine' when inside our hearts may be breaking.
"In our groups, a maximum of eight, women are able to say for the first time 'I'm in a terrible state, my son's taking drugs ' or 'my daughter is seeing a married man'. We have two strict rules: confidentiality and we do not give advice. Rather we say 'Lord, we give this totally to you'. At a Mothers Prayers meeting people say they experience such peace."
But this seems so passive - and mothers, in particular, are conditioned to feel they must be responsible and in control, I comment.
"It isn't passiveness," she replies, "It's trust. It's the worry you give to the Lord, not the need to act.
"It's a spiritual way of living. God is good. 'Come to me all ye who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest'," she says, "It's about letting go and letting God be God. You change and become more peaceful. You know the Lord has all things in his hands."
Surely this depends on a profound faith? "I think that's what the Lord is teaching us. We've been so bogged down with messages that are destroying all family values.
"People are reduced to being people without hope. They throw the towel in, get caught up in the stresses and strains. The Lord has got many graces to give people. Through Mothers Prayers he wants to call people back to himself."
A Christian group, Mothers Prayers has nevertheless opened its doors to those of other religions and to those without faith. "We've had Muslims come, Hindus come and people who have no faith come. But we do not compromise. It's not a matter of 'You pray to your God and we'll pray to ours'. We pray to Jesus. The barriers are being broken down between denominations. We focus on the 95% that unites us and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. We see the value of each other."
And it's not even strictly necessary to be a mother to take part. "It can be any woman with a heart for children - an aunty, a teacher, a nun."
After a time - and more prayer - Fathers Prayers was started, for men. Why not Parents Prayers, with men and women praying together? It was felt, Veronica explains, that separate gender groups left individuals more free to be open and to share among themselves. Not that it is necessary to share intimate details among the group, if you'd rather not, she stresses.
When Veronica talks of the power of prayer, travelling across the world like a huge wave from nation to nation, mother to mother, she says: "I feel privileged and we've found it quite awesome. It's the Lord calling us to pray in a different way, not in a panicky or frustrated way, but knowing that he loves us and gives us grace."
Veronica Williams, founder of Mothers Prayers, is to speak in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, on Monday, September 24, at 8pm, and St Finnian's Church, Cregagh, on Tuesday, September 25, at 8pm. For further information go to www.mothersprayers.org or PO Box 416, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN14 6WE, tel: 01959 532 505