GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- Merle Den Bleyker's pager went off hundreds of times during the months he spent recuperating from a stem-cell transplant to fight cancer.
But the buzzings were a blessing, not an annoyance. Den Bleyker's friends used the pager to let him know they were praying for him around the clock.
''It really was an instrument in God's hands,'' says Den Bleyker, 52, who today is back at his job as a missionary director. ''It was simply a message ... that someone cared, that someone was praying for me.''
Across the country, groups are turning to pagers to provide 24-hour support to those they believe are in need of prayer. It's the latest example of the ways technology and spirituality come together, says Brenda Brasher, a religion professor at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.
People already use e-mail and Internet chat rooms to pray together, but pagers offer an added benefit. In a society where people frequently live far away from family, a pager's beep or buzz can be a comforting reminder that a person is not alone.
''We live far apart from each other, so when you're ill, to some extent you're facing it alone,'' Brasher says. ''With a pager, there is this concrete evidence that people are praying for you.''
Most Pure Heart of Mary Church in Topeka, Kan., set up a prayer pager program after a member read about a similar Texas effort. Since then, the church has distributed more than 40 pagers to ailing parishioners and set up a Web page.
''Some of those people are very ill -- they can't necessarily get up to answer a telephone,'' says Kathy Welch, who helps coordinate the program and herself calls more than three dozen pagers a day after praying.
''This way they don't have to return any phone calls, and they know they are being prayed for,'' she says.
Youth Specialties, a business dedicated to Christian education, suggests that youth pastors give their pagers to young congregants to call when they need a prayer.
''It could be, 'Hey, I need to pass this test,' or something more serious,'' says Rene Howe, a manager with the El Cajon, Calif., company.
In Denver, high school students as well as the ailing carry pagers as part of Third Christian Reformed Church's ministry.
''We've partnered every student with an adult leader. ... These kids get paged by their prayer leaders,'' says Pastor Dave de Ridder, who came up with the idea four years ago as a way to let an ill friend in another state know she was in his prayers.
Some efforts are initiated by friends or worshippers just looking for a way to stay in touch. Others are started by youth ministries, church bulletins, Web sites or word-of-mouth.
The pagers also are used differently. In some cases, worshippers punch in a number code that stands for a specific message. Den Bleyker's pager, for example, used the numbers ''77,'' which corresponds to ''PP'' on a phone dial and stands for the ''peace prayer.''
Under other programs, people dial in a prearranged phone number connected to voice mail, where they've left a message of support.
Cathy Mies of Topeka says her 87-year-old mother received a prayer pager from the Most Pure Heart of Mary Church during the last months of her life. Again and again, the pager's display would flash ''888'' -- the code the church chose to represent the words ''Our Lord Jesus.''
''I think she was surprised that people would be praying for her, people whom she didn't even know,'' recalls Mies. ''It was very emotional to know that people were praying ... not only for my mom, but for myself.''
She also liked the fact that, as other church members gave the prayer pager numbers to their friends or people read about the pagers online, her mother was paged by worshippers from all faiths.
''It's very ecumenical. A prayer is a prayer, I don't care who does it,'' she says. ''Prayer is one of the most unifying things for all of us.''
De Ridder, the Denver pastor, uses the church bulletin to share prayer pager numbers with the 700 members of his congregation. A few have been returned by people who were uncomfortable with the constant buzzing, he said, but most people like them.
Sometimes, family members of those who carried pagers and died make donations to the program in their honor. ''The widow or widower will say that was very valuable, please keep this going,'' he said.
Den Bleyker's ''77'' pages came at all hours during his treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma at a hospital in Ann Arbor, about 120 miles away.
The constant buzzing took a little getting used to, admits Den Bleyker, who had never used a pager before and carried it on his belt or placed on the nightstand next to his bed.
''There was one time when I thought, 'Why can't they let me sleep?''' he recalls, chuckling. ''But then I realized what it was about and I thought, 'That's really super.'''
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