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For her, prayer belongs in schools

Victoria Maynard was driving to work, past the fast food stores and brake repair shops, the square little houses and big hotels, the cars full of strangers with no connection to her. The car radio was on. It was tuned not to her old favorite, 98 Rock, but to WCIE. The call letters stand for Where Christ Is Everything. It is the only radio station that Victoria listens to now.

The announcer was talking about a congressional hearing coming up that day in Tampa, about a proposed constitutional amendment to put prayer back in schools and other public places. Amazingly, the hearing was to be held at lunchtime at a high school across the street from the West Shore office where Victoria works as a receptionist.

So she hurried to Jefferson High School at noon, armed only with her faith and a tuna fish sub, and took a seat in the middle of the auditorium's last row. When the first witness finished testifying about how children across the nation are regularly denied the right to pray in school, the small hazel-eyed woman with a cascade of curly brown hair raised her hands and clapped hard and loud.

Prayer in school is as good as red meat to a hungry politician like Charles Canady, the Lakeland Republican who held the hearing. His ambition can feed off this subject forever. It is not a matter of politics to Victoria, however. It is life.

On her own in the hallway, she told a mostly recognizable story of coming to Tampa when she was 19 because there was no future in upstate New York for her, and this place was going to be golden. There was a hometown truck-driving boyfriend who followed and married her, gave her two boys and now and then, when he lost it, a busted rib. After she left him, he took the kids back to New York. "I felt abandoned and lost," she said. "I felt like a baby thrown out into the world."

She had a job. She had friends, lovers. They would go after work to places like Yucatan Liquor Stand, or she would take a six-pack home and finish it off, smoke some marijuana. This lasted three years until she couldn't stand it anymore. Other people would go to a therapist; Victoria started thinking about going back to church. She was a Catholic back home in New York. But everything that once was, the old rules and habits, was gone. Her divorce had seen to that.

So Victoria found other churches, what some of us might call fundamentalist churches, although she does not. She settled on a non-denominational Christian church not far from where she lives in Town 'N Country. She could look across the room on Sundays and see her own story repeated, see people stunned by their losses and loneliness who wanted to know why divorces, despair and other modern varieties of bad luck struck them. Five years ago she became what she calls born again.

She stopped the drinking, the sex, and listening to Billy Joel and Elton John. She gave up the fight with her ex-husband. She gave up her old friends, who were telling her she was weird. And, for the first time in her life, she registered to vote.

Friday was casual day at the stock brokerage where she works, so Victoria showed up for the hearing in jeans, running shoes and a black T-shirt displaying the words Messiah and Jesus in great ivory letters, and pictures of a lion and a lamb. Nobody at the office minds, she said. She doesn't preach at people. "I try to be real sensitive," she said. "I know people who do that, and it's a turn-off."

But even though she said she knows there will always be many religions, she talks about her faith freely, and the thought that she can't convert everybody troubles her. "There are a lot of people in the world that don't know Jesus Christ," she said, "and I wish they could."

Her eyes shone. She has met a man at her church who makes a living fixing transmissions, and they are going to be married at the end of the year. "He is a truly godly man," Victoria said. Their church offers college-level courses in theology, and if she takes enough of them, she can be a teacher in a Christian school. She is 36. Life is good.

The hearing dragged on, but Victoria Maynard's lunch hour was soon over. She had to get back to work. She crossed the street, carrying the rest of her tuna sub and a certainty that I envied a little, but mostly feared.