BROOKSVILLE — For Joe Cantone, praying comes as naturally as walking. He began doing both at a very young age. Talking with God is part of his heritage, and he feels blessed to be able to pray for anyone in need.
Many weekday and Saturday mornings, Cantone can be found praying with and for people who have come into the Rising Sun Cafe in Brooksville, where he has set up a special prayer corner. Some people come in specifically for prayer; others are there to grab a bite and are drawn to his corner.
John Callea and his wife, Lisa, head the Love Your Neighbor ministry, based at their Rising Sun Cafe.
"Joe came to our (free community) dinner as a volunteer after reading about us in the paper," Callea said. "After a few months, he asked if he could set up a prayer corner, and for (several) years he has prayed with hundreds. … We have witnessed many miraculous healings and answers to prayer."
Cantone, 65, is quick to shift any praise of his ministry to God, and any attention that comes his way toward his mother and grandmother.
"Some call me a prayer warrior, but if I am, I couldn't hold a candle to my mother, who prayed constantly throughout the day, always seeking the Lord she loved so much," Cantone said. "My grandmother was the ultimate prayer warrior. She had the gift of intercession."
Both women introduced the young Cantone to prayer by example. His mother, Dorothy Cantone, would turn off the TV or put down a book she was reading to pray.
"She was very dedicated to prayer wherever she was," Cantone said. "She used to pray in the car. She was always praying."
His grandmother, Marie Esposito, was sought out by family and friends for prayer.
"Before I even went to school, when my grandmother would be babysitting me in her house, I would see neighbors come to the door and ask for Marie," Cantone said. "Some of them she didn't even know, but they would say, 'I'm a friend of so and so and they said you would pray for me.' I was very fortunate to also be there when they came back at a later date to tell my grandmother their prayers had been answered. I just thought it was great."
Both women, now deceased, attended St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Spring Hill, where Cantone is a member and where he helped launch a feeding program almost two years ago.
When Cantone's mother died last month, his friends were able to offer him comfort and give back some of the prayer support Cantone has provided for them.
"I have had the privilege of praying with Joe in his ministry and have witnessed many healings and testimonies," said John Stramiello, director of Behind the Stone Ministries in Spring Hill. "He knows it is not his doing, but God's doing."
Mike Wolff, director of Reconnections Inc., met and talked with Cantone when he came to Brooksville in January to film people active in the Love Your Neighbor ministry for a documentary he is making. The project will be released on the Internet later this year. Wolff said Cantone is a treasure in his life and the lives of many others.
"I've never known the feeling that there is someone praying faithfully for me every day," Wolff said.
There was a time when Cantone, who had begun his prayer ministry in the 1970s in Queens, N.Y., after he became part of a Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, halted the ministry.
"I'd lost a very lucrative job on Wall Street, and then I really fell out of the ministry because I couldn't even pay my bills," he said. "I was homeless for six weeks. That was the end of me praying for other people for a while."
But the experience drove his roots deeper into God, he said.
"There's nothing like adversity to either make you or break you," Cantone said. "If in our adversity we can see the hand of the Lord, we know we're never alone and that there's a reason."
Cantone moved to Florida, at his mother's request, 15 years ago and worked several different jobs, finally retiring four years ago.
"When I mentioned to (the Calleas) to start a prayer corner, that launched me back into the prayer ministry," he said.
Now, with much of his time devoted to the ministry, Cantone encourages others to find their own quiet time to pray.
"This is a time like no other," he said. "Most people want comfort more than they want Christ. If you are not in the vine (Christ), you are going to whither up and die in today's world. It is absolutely beyond important to make sure you press into him at all costs."
Recently he set an email to friends with some admonitions about effective prayer.
Praying should be done from the heart, and done slowly, he says.
"How bad do you want to meet the living God, to experience him?" he asks. "The strength of your prayers will determine whether you pray, how often, how well, how long. Prayer is an expression of desire."
Above all, Cantone says, prayers must be heartfelt.
"Prayer is entering into God and letting him enter into you," he said, "It is an encounter of the most intimate love."