March 30, 2014 Updated: March 30, 2014 at 10:58 am
Sometimes, all you've got is a prayer.
That's the principle behind Courtside Ministries. Its volunteers stand outside the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex and offer to say a prayer with those about to enter.
"Our purpose here is just to bring a sense of peace through God to the court system," said Mike Valliant, a retired insurance agent who volunteers a couple of hours each week.
Since June 2009, volunteers in Colorado Springs have prayed with some 20,000 people, organizers estimate.
But the mission is growing.
Founded here by the local chapter of the Christian Legal Society, Courtside Ministries has expanded in recent years to include chapters in the Chicago area, Redding, Calif. and Valparaiso, Ind., in each case after volunteers rushed to participate.
Other locations are planned for Texas and Oklahoma.
For Synthia Morris, a family law attorney and director of Courtside Ministries, it's only the beginning for the 6-year-old nonprofit.
"There's no doubt that a courthouse is a dark, lonely, fearful place," she said. "I think that Courtside Ministries is a way for people to have some hope and have some faith."
The approach is simple. From Monday to Thursday every week, weather permitting, the ministry sets up a table near the sidewalk outside the judicial complex and volunteers ask passers-by: "May we pray for you?"
"We offer to pray, and they can accept or reject that offer," said volunteer Fred O'Riley, a retired carpenter who is among the stable of 35 volunteers.
On a recent morning, Steven Kinchlow of Colorado Springs was among the 50 to 80 people who accept the invitation to pray on an average day.
"It gives people a positive feeling when they're down and out," said Kinchlow, who said "yes" to volunteers on his way into the courthouse for a child custody matter.
Said James Byrne, another willing recruit: "It's cool what they're doing. I'm not going to pass up a prayer."
If the answer is no, volunteers say they are polite and respectful without pressing the issue further.
Prayer requests often involve criminal matters, restraining orders and other difficult situations that are a stock in trade at any large courthouse.
"Once in a while, we get the happy prayers, like when people are coming in for a wedding or adopting a child," Valliant said.
Not everyone is excited about hearing the invitation, volunteers say. When someone becomes confrontational, Valliant said he turns and walks away.
"We're not intimidating," he added. "We're here to help people."
Some of those who stopped to pray with the ministry have returned with tales of redemption, sobriety and gratitude - proof that someone is listening, the group says.
Morris, who helped get the organization started, said that before setting up shop, organizers checked on the legality of assembling outside the courthouse with the chief judge of the 4th Judicial District, the El Paso County attorney and the city attorney. The groups generally recognized that an area near the courthouse's front sidewalk is a free speech zone, Morris said.
Other demonstrators, such as medical marijuana advocates, have assembled in the same area.
The ministry was asked to move only once - to the other side of a sidewalk a few feet away - after El Paso County commissioners received a letter from an atheist group inquiring whether the nonprofit was under a county contract.
It isn't, and the ministry since has been invited to return to its normal sport at the side of the courthouse walkway, Morris said.
The group receives its funding through private donations and is not affiliated with any specific denomination.