The Popular Story of the Kansas City Prayer Booths Is False, But the Brilliant Artist Behind the Booth is Genuine

Feast your eyes on this addition to the (sub)urban landscape:

According to Topekasnews.com, “prayer booths” like these have been placed all over Kansas City, Kansas in recent months.

Since the booths were put in throughout town several months ago, Kansas City data tracking confirms that on average, the prayer booths receive over 100,000 callers per week.

“It is therapeutic, that is how we lobbied them through city council,” local pastor Reverend Miles Collier reports. ”We said these prayer booths are not just for Christians, but for any person to take a break to close their eyes, ask out loud for what they need in life and just take a break from it all. It is like having a free counseling session.”

The account is confirmed by media outlets as varied as Democratic Underground, Mediabistro, and India Today, if by “confirmed” you mean “copied.”

Unsurprisingly, the whole thing is actually a windup by an also-ran satirist named Haywood Bynum III. I confirmed his account was fake by calling a couple of journalists at the Kansas City Star, who had never heard of the prayer booth initiative. Next, I spoke with Bill Hurrelbrink, a spokesman in the Kansas City mayor’s office, who checked with the local planning and zoning board. The word is no: these booths do not actually exist.

Except … as a unique art installation by New York-educated, Missouri-based Dylan Mortimer. He created it in 2003 and has since shown it around the country (though never in Kansas City, KS).

Talking with Dylan today was a lot of fun, especially when he invited me to look at some of his other work online. Turns out that most of his pieces straddle the same line between religious piety and gentle absurdity that the prayer booth does.

Check these out (click to enlarge):

Next, take a look at these giant halos that are currently on display at the Nerman Museum (they activate by motion sensor once you stand close to them):

Dylan doesn’t mind that his work — most of it tinged with subtle humor — creates lots of ambiguity and strong reactions. You can never quite tell if his pieces go for reverence or irreverence. In a way, that’s the point. The downside to the deliberately mixed message, though, is that he’s been the target of some venomous verbal attacks, and he’s even received death threats — from both sides of the spectrum.

“Especially the prayer booth, when it’s been out in public, always got lots of people going,” he told me. “I’d hear from religious believers who assumed that I was some liberal mocking their faith, and then I’d hear from people with no religious faith who were angry to encounter the booth on a public street where they assumed it had been paid for with tax dollars, even though that wasn’t true. I guess I’m an equal-opportunity offender. The idea is just to raise discussion of things we wouldn’t otherwise talk about, good or bad. ”

He takes the negative comments in stride. “It’s messy to talk about religion in the public sphere, but it’s a conversation worth having” — and doubly so if viewers of his work suggest new meanings to him. “I’m happy for people to see anything in my work that comes to them,” Dylan went on. “Someone asked me if the fact that the prayer booth looks like a phone booth was a comment on how phone booths have mostly disappeared, and how public prayer has too. I’d never thought of it that way, so it wasn’t the significance I attached to it, but it’s an interesting and valid viewpoint.”

We talked about how the presumed background of the artist often colors viewers’ perception of the art. If any of Dylan’s pieces had been made by Andres Serrano, of Piss Christ fame, it would probably be seen an an outright attack on faith. If the maker had instead been someone like Kiki Smith, who very much self-identifies as spiritual, the same works would most likely be considered respectful if not sacrosanct.

If you know nothing else about Dylan Mortimer, what does his art do for you? Are you captivated by it… and if so, why?

Now for the reveal:

Dylan is, in fact, a Christian. More than that, when he’s not creating art, he’s the pastor of the small Rivercity Community Church in Kansas City, Missouri, an evangelical ministry “for people who don’t like church.”

Did that flip your view of his art?

Discuss.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

    My only question is how is Superman, or for that matter any other superhero besides Ant Man and Stature, supposed to use that both to change from a mild mannered Reporter/Student/Billionaire/Used Car Salesman into the superhero that would answer said prayers.

    • busterggi

      That was answered decades ago – revolving doors of course!

      • Michael

        Superman can just use super speed.

  • Gringa123

    I like it. It shows that he doesn’t take religion too seriously (a la don’t mess with anything religious because it is sacred and you are not worthy) and that he welcomes other interpretations. It’s also not preachy in my opinion.

    • Little_Magpie

      Yeah, I feel that way too. I identify as atheist, but my preferred type of believer is the one who doesn’t take his/her own religion too seriously and can have a laugh at it.

    • Pitabred

      Exactly. I have no problem with religion (even though I think it’s wrong) until it starts trying to tell people what they can and can’t to in a secular society, to impose itself on people that aren’t adherents to that religion. Then I have an issue. This guy is actually doing the opposite, asking people to question their beliefs. Which is a very good thing to do, if you do it honestly.

  • Gus

    I like that he doesn’t take it too seriously and that he realizes that artists don’t get to dictate the interpretation of their art – that once you give it to the public, then it means what it means to them, whether you intended it or not.

    Some of it I find amusing, some of it I don’t care for. None of it really stands out to me. Except maybe the Tupac piece.

  • Lucy Summers

    The entire work of art is phenomena excellent.
    I respect him for how he has put it out there. Hope he doesn’t quit his efforts. Oh, I am an atheist. :-)

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Considering how many times I’ve seen it show up on my FB feed, I’d say it’s pretty brilliant.

    • Terry Firma

      Dylan Mortimer had nothing to do with that fallacious story. The so-called satirist at topekasnews took Mortimer’s artwork and fabricated a silly yarn around it that, for the past 48 hours, has been passed around by atheists as more proof of Christian privilege.

      I’m not above reproach, having (painfully) been taken in by Internet liars, so I include myself in the reminder that skepticism should always come before belief.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        I always thought the story was satire, but never knew the “it actually exists in any form” part before now. Not that I haven’t fallen for shit, but I was surprised at how many seem to take this one seriously.

        • PernRider

          I came across the article today (linked over here by the comments, actually), and was BEGGING for it to be satire. It’s sadly becoming harder and harder to tell. xP The fact that there WASN’T some kind of satire tag on it only confused me, honestly …

          I dunno how I feel about it, knowing it’s an art installation, to be honest.

  • guest

    The ‘cautionary church installation’ makes me think of Health and Safety standards, and how some people say they’re almost like a religion, with pages of archane lore and lots of rules to follow. It looks kind of science-fictiony too, like something disciples of the Church of Christ, Computer Programmer might wear.

    The motion-activated haloes look like they would be a lot of fun to play with.

    The other pieces don’t really do that much for me. Still, I admire the guy’s imagination. My opinion didn’t really change when I found he was Christian. A lot of Christians manage to have a sense of humour about their faith. Have you ever looked at the ‘gadgets for god’ section on the ship of fools website? Some funny stuff there.

    I think it’s good that his art is ambiguous and he’s not precious about the meanings people attach to it. A good model for how to treat the bible. Something for everyone.

  • Brodestar

    Initially I was discussed with the idea of “prayer booths” on public property. Now that I know that the story is false and it’s really just artwork im quite pleased with the satirical nature of it. I think it’s good that the artist doesn’t take his religion too seriously like some christians do.

    • Randay

      “I was discussed with the idea”. That kind of makes sense if it means “questioned”. Who knows how seriously he takes his religion? I rather like his art, but that has nothing to do with what I may think of him.

      • Ewan

        I think they might have been going for ‘disgusted’, but it’s impossible to be sure.

  • Melchior Vulpius

    I love the cushioned kneeler! You don’t want to be too uncomfortable when worshiping the creator of the universe.

    • JohnnieCanuck

      Memories of my Anglican youth, right there.

      If I’m not mistaken the padded/unpadded controversy is a schism in itself, small and pointless though it might be. Some feel pride in their visible suffering and scorn those who pray in luxury.

  • Jason

    I couldn’t believe this and at first glance I had a hard time confirming this as satire. Until I found this post, I was almost beginning to believe this was real. Thank You.


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