Karen Covell believes in the power of prayer and has a heart for the soul of Hollywood. That’s why 10 years ago she founded the Hollywood Prayer Network — a nonprofit ministry devoted to getting Christians caring and praying for people working in the entertainment industry. Having worked in the industry for nearly 30 years and believing that only prayer can truly change Hollywood, Covell founded the organization to mobilize Christians across the world into intercessory prayer for the Christian and non-Christian celebrities, decision-makers and cultural influencers who populate the “30 mile zone” (TMZ) around Los Angeles.
Over the past 10 years, Covell, a member of Biola’s Studio Task Force, has made prayer her passion, bringing together more than 5,000 Christians from across the world to pray for Hollywood. Biola Magazine recently sat down with Covell to talk about her ministry and the importance of intercessory prayer.
BM: Karen, what brought you out to Hollywood originally?
Covell: I came out to USC from Chicago to go to college, and I was assigned to a freshman roommate who was a committed believer. At the time, I wasn’t. I became a Christian my freshman year at USC. I created my own producing major, which was focused on theater, and I met my husband, Jim, who was a composing major. Once I became a believer, I started putting together a group of Christians at USC and then we both graduated from USC, decided to stay in Hollywood in the business, and soon realized we couldn’t find very many other Christians. Eventually we met this incredible woman who was on staff of the brand new Hollywood division of Campus Crusade for Christ, called Associates in Media. She met us and said she would like to start a prayer group and we said, “Great, let’s do it.” We had six or eight of us in my apartment — I was single — and that was 26 years ago. We’ve been meeting every month since then, praying for each other, interceding for the industry. We call it Premise. It’s a fabulous group of all Christian industry professionals.
BM: So when did you start the Hollywood Prayer Network?
Covell: Well, as time went on I realized that not only was there an unhealthy group of Christians here — we didn’t know each other, everybody felt alone — but there was also a very unhealthy relationship between the church and Hollywood. The church was scared to death of Hollywood. Initially, “Hollywoodland” was actually a housing development of Christians, and they started this development wanting to have a Christian presence in Hollywood. They put a sign up, “No actors or dogs allowed,” which reflected the growing rift between Christians and Hollywood. There became this real divide, and by the time I arrived in the early ’80s, the church just hated Hollywood. They were boycotting, they were throwing out their TVs, and the people in Hollywood were like, “Well if you hate us, we hate you.” So to be a Christian in Hollywood meant that you were either betraying the church or you were betraying the industry. So I said, we’ve got to do something about it. How do we get this division to stop?
A friend of mine suggested that we get a prayer group started to get people praying for Hollywood, and I said, “That’s it!” That’s when I started formulating the Hollywood Prayer Network, thinking that if you pray for someone you can’t hate them. If we can get the church praying for Hollywood, not only will that make an eternal difference here through prayer, but it will get Christians caring. So that was the beginning of the Hollywood Prayer Network. It was launched in 2001.
BM: How has the Hollywood Prayer Network evolved since it started eight years ago?
Covell: We have found a hunger in three different areas. The Christians here are hungry for prayer. So I started the one-to-one prayer partnerships, which is an intercessor praying for an industry professional. We have over 1,100 of these prayer partnerships now. My goal is to have every Christian here prayed for by someone on the outside. What’s happening through these prayer partnerships is that Christians are feeling empowered that there is someone on the outside who cares enough about them to pray for them. Relationships are growing. We just had an intercessor fly in to attend an industry professional’s wedding last month. There are cool things going on like that. It’s also great because it is changing the hearts of the people praying, because they are seeing that Hollywood is not this horrible place and it’s not Sodom and Gomorrah.
We also found that Christians are usually either of two extremes. They either hate the media, or they’re mass consumers and don’t consider any spiritual issues at all. I thought, how do we break that? So that’s when I started the kids’ prayer calendar. We have a monthly calendar online that people can download, that tells kids names that they can be praying for — kids who are on Nickelodeon, Disney movies, that type of thing. The hope is that youth pastors and parents will say, “Ah, we can get them praying as they’re watching this stuff, from a young age.” It also gets kids thinking, “Oh, Miley Cyrus. We’re going to her concert. We should pray for her.” The culture is totally ruling the young generation. The church is the movie theater today, Sunday school is television, and hymns are iPods. That’s where we’re getting our influence.
For older kids, we also have the red wristbands that say 90028 — the world’s most influential zip code. It’s meant to remind people to pray for Hollywood.
We have 48 local chapters, where people from different parts of the world can either pray for their local media professionals, Hollywood, or each other. We have a 24/1 prayer day the first Friday of every month, where for 24 hours our local chapters are all praying for Hollywood. We have a monthly e-mail that tells people how they can be praying.
BM: Who comes up with the issues or people to pray for on any given month?
Covell: I do that. I don’t ever want to pray against anybody. That’s a rule. I never want to make it sound like gossip. If it’s anybody personal who has a request, I always get permission from them. And then I pick people who are in the news or issues that are in the news. I go through the papers, the trades, and people send me information and I sort through that. I try to get a business prayer, a celebrity prayer, and then I try to get an international prayer request and a local request from somebody in one of the chapters. I want people to understand the struggles we have here as Christians — struggles with paying rent, with making a living. It’s not all glitz and glamour. There are a lot of people struggling. And then I always have a verse of the month, a quote of the month, and a tip of the month.
BM: Do the celebrities that you mention in your monthly e-mail know that they are being prayed for?
Covell: Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, we pray for them anyway because it is praying a blessing on them, for their betterment, for the Lord to touch them, that type of thing.
BM: Have you had any feedback over the years from celebrities you’d prayed for who knew they were being prayed for?
Covell: Yeah, I’ve gotten a couple responses and they’re almost always complimentary. Every once in a while we do come across someone who just doesn’t get it. And I believe there is a real spiritual battle. There are still some Christians who still get up in arms about it and say, “I will never send my child to Hollywood. That’s Satan’s pit. That place is evil. You will lose your faith if you go there!” I got a letter from a gentleman who said, “Pray for Hollywood? Please. People are dying in Iraq.” That’s a spiritual battle. When I speak around the country about HPN, almost always there is someone who comes up to me afterwards and says, “I am so sorry. I have said terrible things about Hollywood but I am going to pray for it now. I’ve never thought of that.” That’s a common response. They’d felt bad about having bashed Hollywood but never thought to pray for us.
BM: So there is sort of a twofold purpose to the praying: 1) to pray for Hollywood so that it actually does change, and 2) for Christians to change their mindset about Hollywood.
Covell: Yes. One misconception people have is that Hollywood is run by money. And so they believe that if you boycott and pull on the purse strings, it will make a difference. But here are two ironies to that: One, it’s not run by money. It’s run by worldview. Many times people in Hollywood are presented a project that might make them a lot of money and they turn it down because it doesn’t reflect their worldview. The other thing that Christians don’t see is that they are sending a hate message. You tell someone, “I’m not going to give you money so stop doing that” and they think that will work. But you will never change someone’s actions until you change their heart. The only response we get from boycotting is Hollywood saying, “Don’t tell me what to do.” It doesn’t help. Their hearts are angrier. I’m big on telling Christians to stop boycotting but to pray instead. Send Christians to Hollywood who have talent and are strong in their faith, because we’re trying to build a community here who are artists, who love the Lord, who won’t compromise, and we are seeing a visible difference in the number of Christians unifying here. And it’s making a difference.
BM: To the guy who questioned praying for Hollywood when people are dying in Iraq, what would you say? What is the reason why people should pray for celebrities?
Covell: People are physically dying in Iraq. People are spiritually dying in Hollywood. There’s really no difference between a physical warzone and a spiritual warzone. I never say just pray for Hollywood. I’m only saying that Hollywood needs to be recognized as a place that needs prayer along with all the other places in the world. The wrong mindset is that because Hollywood supposedly has a lot of money and fame and fun and glitz, they don’t need prayer. But I’m saying that there are broken, hurting, dying people here. Look at the membership of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Ninety-eight percent of SAG does not make a living. Only two percent of them can actually make a good living. So the idea that we’re all here living this wonderful, glamorous life is factually not true. So that’s how I respond. People are spiritually dying, emotionally dying. The divorce and drug rate is horrible. The number of affairs, the domestic violence … it’s a terrible problem because it’s a place of miserable, broken people.
BM: A Biola professor, Fred Sanders, recently wrote a blog post titled “Why I Don’t Pray for Celebrities,” in which he argued that we should pray for things that we legitimately care for — and he just doesn’t care for celebrities because he views them as media abstractions and not real people.
Covell: But they are real people. The problem is they don’t appear to be real, and so we’ve created an image of somebody and we have no idea who that real person is. And the real person is hurting, and lost, and struggling, and in a position that isn’t really what God intended. God did not intend for man to get the glory. God did not intend for man to be so visible. We can’t handle the constant attention of fame. It’s not natural. But we have to get through the public personas of celebrities and see that they are real, struggling people with great needs underneath that.
BM: Would you say that it’s sometimes difficult for people to pray with a genuine concern for celebrities?
Covell: We’re not trying to get everyone to pray for Hollywood. I’m trying to reach the people who are already passionate about the media, but their passion comes out in anger and disapproval. I’m saying, “Everyone needs prayer, so go to the places you’re passionate about.” I want to challenge them to channel their anger through prayer, which makes an eternal difference.
BM: Do you think that in some way, what you’re doing is trying to rehabilitate the image of Hollywood as a mission field?
Covell: That’s one of the reasons. Absolutely. If people look at it as a mission field, they’ll have a different view of it. If they look at it as Satan’s pit they’re going to hate it. It’s a big difference.
BM: Have you seen fruits over the last 10 years?
Covell: It’s been unbelievable. When I first started challenging people to look at Hollywood as a mission field, I’d get skeptical responses. But now, every time I challenge people I get responses like, “Oh, I’ve been thinking about that actually.” God is already working on their hearts and is laying a foundation, so Christians just have to show up. More and more Christians are coming to Hollywood which makes me think that the families and the churches are releasing them. So there’s a change of heart.
BM: How many people are a part of HPN?
Covell: At this point, about 7,500, scattered throughout the world. This includes churches, Bible studies, families and individuals. The range is unbelievable. We have housewives in Indiana, we have leaders of a media ministry in Madrid, we have a PR person in New York City who loves the arts. We even have a snail mail list of almost 100 people — mostly older people — who don’t have e-mail and yet want to pray for Hollywood.
BM: What would you say are some things that Christians could be praying for right now for Hollywood?
Covell: Pray that the Christian community would continue to unify and grow as a visible, positive community in Hollywood. Pray that we can reach more nonbelievers here and continue to share our faith, bringing the gospel into the marketplace as peers with each other. Pray that the church would be willing to send talented Christians here who can look at their lives as tentmakers in Hollywood. Pray that the Lord would do a spiritual revival here. When a celebrity is in the news, instead of gossiping about them, pray for them. Pray that the Lord would help us see celebrities as real people not just as abstract media constructs.
Hollywood is an unnatural place to live. The competition is horrible, the celebrity is very difficult. It’s an oppressive environment. The City of Angels. It’s a spiritual hub and it creates spiritual oppression and battle. Pray that solid, strong Christians can come and stand firm in a place like this, sharing our faith with others that are entrapped in it, and bring God in to change the spiritual climate.