It's 6 a.m. at Denny's on Maple Road in Amherst. Cyndi Lauper is singing over the sound system and Maureen keeps filling coffee cups.
The few patrons, there in the dark, look badly in need of the caffeine, except for the six young men gathered at one table looking alert and eager -- which they are -- to pray and praise.
"Before I do anything in my life, I take it before my heavenly father," said Dave Budz, who is 34, married and a father, as are most of the others.
He's here with Connection Points, one of several groups meeting since October through the Chapel at CrossPoint. Besides their Bibles, they use a devotional aid called "The Fourth Seed," which Budz has marked up with notes.
This devout group isn't alone. A recent study on the prayer habits of Americans found that a majority of them believe in God, and most of them pray at least once a week.
The Baylor University study, called "American Piety in the 21st Century," is the most extensive and sensitive ever done on the spiritual life of Americans. More than 1,700 Americans answered 350 questions on topics ranging from civic engagement, belief in the paranormal (even Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster), whether they've read "The Da Vinci Code," believe in God (more than 85 percent of Americans say they do) and whether they pray.
"Even though some feel this is an increasingly secular country, people's faith remains very stable, year after year, and we are not the incredibly godless country that I think many would have us believe," said Baylor sociology professor Byron Johnson.
Reporting on whether they pray at least once a day, 67 percent of Evangelical Protestants say they do. Of mainline Protestants, 44 percent say they do; Catholics, 46 percent; and Jews, 32 percent.
According to the study, the most frequent prayers are Black Protestants; 74 percent report that they pray once a day or more, while 71 percent of Americans say they pray once a week or more.
"African Americans are some of the most spiritual people in this country," said Johnson. "They tend to be much more spiritual than white people, just like women tend to be more spiritual than men."
And people pray in many ways -- in sacred settings, alone first thing in the morning, with groups of fellow believers, five times a day, over pancakes. And for many reasons -- to praise, to thank, to ask, to cajole, to bargain.
At the Denny's breakfast prayer meeting, everyone seems perfectly comfortable talking about their walk with the Lord between ordering oatmeal and eggs.
"There's a private part of Christianity," said Jeff Diquattro. "But it's also a team sport. You succeed together."
What they want, mainly, they say, is to deepen their relationship with God and to be held accountable for the way they live.
>Days start with prayer
When she was younger, Jean Hunter, 72, prayed in a whole different way: "I did a lot of begging and bossing."
For a time, she was angry at God because her late mother had Alzheimer's disease.
"I really tried to twist God's arm over that," said Hunter. "I told him off and said my mother didn't deserve it and I didn't deserve it, either."
Eventually, she came to terms with her mother's illness, she said, and was grateful for having her alive.
No matter what's going on in her life, Hunter prays.
Usually, it begins as she sits alone long before most are awake, at 5:30 a.m., a habit she can't break after a 30-year career in New York Telephone's human resources department. And her first thought is of God. "God is the head of my life," Hunter said. "We are not on a par here. He's the head."
Then, with her Bible and her favorite prayer book, "Prayers That Avail Much," open in front of her, Hunter starts her busy day, which might include playing bridge, going to one of three prayer meetings or a multitude of other activities.
No longer does she instruct God on what to do, she said. Instead, she simply asks for his mercy.
"I've learned that God has given us his word, many times, that he cares for us," said Hunter, who belongs to the J. W. Loguen AME Zion Church, based at the Erie County Medical Center.
When Hunter has a specific concern, she spells it out and slips it into a box at the Humboldt Parkway Baptist Church PUSH gathering, where you Pray Until Something Happens.
"We pray. We sing. We give the praise report," said Hunter, referring to testimony on what members view as answered prayer.
Several months ago, Hunter prayed and fasted for 40 days, she said, asking that her teen-age grandson be released from prison into a Christian-based rehabilitation program, where he has since turned his life around.
"I know it was an answer to the prayers of many," she said.
>The study's findings
Looking at the big picture, the Baylor survey, funded by the Templeton Foundation with field work by the Gallup Organization, found that religion is not only vibrant, but complex, said Baylor professor Johnson.
One example is that there are significantly diverse understandings of God, he said. They asked questions about God's level of engagement and anger, and constructed four God "types" in order to get the answers. They asked whether people saw God as authoritarian, benevolent, critical or distant.
Their characteristics are:
*Authoritarian -- A God who is "really engaged" and helpful in decision making; angry; responsible for such events as economic upturns and tsunamis; capable of meting out punishment to the unfaithful or ungodly; most prominent among Southerners.
"He's the type that cares if you get a parking place at Wal-Mart," said Johnson.
*Benevolent -- A God who is active in a person's daily life; a force of positive influence; less likely to be angry, wrathful or willing to condemn; most prominent in the Midwest.
*Critical -- A God who does not interact with the world, but views the current state of the world unfavorably; his displeasure will be felt in another life and divine justice may not be of this world; most prominent in the East.
*Distant -- A God who is a cosmic force that set the laws of nature in motion; is not active in the world and is not upset at all; does not hold clear opinions about human beings' activities or world events; most prominent in the West.
Also, a person's "God view" influences frequency of prayer, the survey reports. So 54 percent of believers in an Authoritarian God pray several times a day; Benevolent, 32 percent; Critical, 6 percent; and Distant, 7 percent.
>A benevolent God
For Rich and Diane Rog of North Tonawanda, it's unquestionably a Benevolent God to whom they pray, both silently and in spoken word.
"I think of God as a companion in my life," said Rich Rog, who sometimes envisions Jesus, either as a babe in a manager or carrying his cross, as he prays.
Though the Rogs work full time, are active in their Catholic parish, spend time with their family and have time-consuming hobbies, they set aside time they consider sacred: prayer time.
"I pray every morning before I get out of bed," said Diane, focusing on people who are sick or without a faith life.
Also, in the evenings, for at least 20 minutes, they find a quiet place in their large Victorian home to meditate, to use the prayer of imagination, to read an inspirational passage or "to say the rosary when I'm upset or can't think of what to say," Diane said.
Usually, she said, she meditates, intentionally placing herself in God's presence.
"You get to where you have no concept of time or what's going on," she said. "There's no need to say anything or do anything. It's like holding a baby in your arms and just looking."
In ancient times, Muslim believers looked to the sun to tell them when to face Mecca and say the requisite salat, the five times daily prayer.
Today, a computer program reminds them.
But, in modern society, when the call comes, it's not always possible to respond. After all, there are ablutions that are required, removal of shoes, unrolling the prayer rug, as well as accompanying movements that including touching the forehead, tip of the nose, knees and toes to the ground while praising Allah.
From the time he was 7, Ahmed Soliman, news anchor at Bridges, an Orchard Park-based Muslim TV network, began learning that routine and posted the schedule on the refrigerator in his Princeton, N.J., home.
He values the practice for many reasons, he said. "You clean yourself, you meditate, you connect with God," he said. "It's time with God. Why not do it?
"Prayer is important because nothing else counts without it, whether its pilgrimage or fasting or charity."
He's seen it smooth over disagreements. "Let's say that you are having a heated debate around the dinner table, then everyone comes together to pray," he said, "and when you return, you become calm and jovial."
Asked to describe the God to whom he prays, Soliman said: "There are 99 references to God in Muslim faith, as compassionate, merciful, all-knowing, almighty. Those describe God. I wouldn't dare to describe God, who am I to describe God?"
When his colleague Sana Beg started work she tried to "pray on the side," she said.
"But it was very difficult because I was always writing a news case or was on the air," she said. "Islam is flexible and understands the human condition, so you make the intention and make up the prayers. It's not life or death."
Prayer, for her, is a time to unwind and connect with God, she said. "Prayer makes me less of a preacher and more reflective of my own self," she said. "When you get into the rat race, it's so one-dimensional that you forget the bigger purpose."
>Trying out yoga
Though he was raised as a Lutheran, Rolf Sovik knew immediately that yogic practice was for him.
And he's been at it for 35 years, now as co-director of the Himalayan Institute with his wife, Mary Gail; the author of the book "Moving Inward" and a nationally known teacher.
"I knew right at the beginning that this was the right thing for me to do because it was very healing, nurturing and meaningful," said Sovik, who sits shoeless in his office overlooking Delaware Avenue. "Growing up as I did, I would never have imagined in 100 years that the wholesome nature of meditation would appeal to me."
His decades-long quest, he said, has been to move towards self-awareness of God, giving thought to important ideas and developing a devotional relationship with God.
And he does it through daily meditation, usually an hour each morning, relying on a mantra he was given years ago and slipping a mala (a counting device with 108 beads) through his fingers to serve as a cue for reciting the mantra.
"As fingers slide from bead to bead, the mind quietly sustains the mantra even when other thoughts pass through the mind," he writes in his book "Moving Inward."
"It's not a conversation with God, but an invitation for the presence of God," said Sovik. "I don't speak to God, because God isn't distant."
>Families are the focus
When Baylor researchers asked people the "last thing they prayed about," most said it was for themselves and their families, according to Johnson.
"It's interesting because one of the things they talk about in Evangelical circles is to pray specifically," said Johnson. "Don't be praying for global issues, not in that Miss America-contest-kind-of-way that says 'I want world peace.' Be targeted. It's about the needs of individuals."
That mirrors prayer requests received by Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig of Ohr Tzion, a local modern orthodox congregation.
"Mostly, people ask me to pray for people who are sick," said Friedfertig, "But Jewish prayer, in general, is meant for praise . . . requests and thanksgiving, too, but mainly for praise. Prayer gives a sense of being, a sense of purpose in life. We're not much on prayer being answered. "
And the God to whom they pray?
"It's an imageless religion," said Friedfertig, "and while God might be thought of as a judge, a creator, a companion, there is no visual picture that accompanies the thought."
Before Jeffrey Schapiro goes off to his busy day as headmaster of Kadimah School, a Jewish day school on Eggert Road in Amherst, he recites the prayers required of faithful Jews.
"I pray at home, certainly in the morning," said Schapiro. "I think I've become more comfortable in a relationship with God, with where I am. Maybe before I wasn't quite sure."
His view, he said, is not to question why things happen. "Instead," he said, "you turn to God to help learn how to deal with it."
Although Jews are mandated to pray three times daily, the Baylor survey doesn't show nearly that level of participation, which comes as no surprise to researcher Johnson.
"Many Jews are quite secular and proudly so," said Johnson, "so it doesn't surprise me that the percentage of those who pray would be lower."
Schapiro offered this perspective: "I think what's important as part of the Jewish religion is that prayer is very important, but more important is how you live your life. If you live your life the way it should be, prayer comes naturally. Otherwise, just praying doesn't mean anything."