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Nightcrawlers bring prayer, comfort to troubled areas like West End

SALISBURY — Armed only with joyful songs and fervent prayers asking God for peace and unity, the Nightcrawlers walk through some of the most troubled areas in Rowan County nearly every Friday night.
“Sometimes we meet a whole lot of people and sometimes we don’t meet anybody, but in it all God is working, God is moving,” said the Rev. Timothy Bates, a former drug dealer who founded the group three years ago. “Some people say, ‘All you all are doing is walking.’ Listen to God, is all I can tell you.”
Bates, who turned his life around in the 1990s after serving time for selling drugs, said God called him and his family to bring prayer and comfort to places plagued by crime. They call it night crawling, and they have walked and prayed throughout Salisbury, Spencer, East Spencer and other communities.
Bates scans the newspaper to find places in need of prayer. Lately, the Nightcrawlers been walking in the West End, where recent gun violence left two dead, four injured and countless others living in fear.
Rather than scaring Nightcrawlers away, the crime has drawn them to the neighborhood. The group in the past has walked many miles in the area surrounding Livingstone College but now is redoubling its efforts after shootings, homicides and stray bullets that landed in bedrooms, including where children were sleeping.
The streets were still wet after an evening rainshower when 14 Nightcrawlers gathered at 10 p.m. Friday in the parking lot of Trinity Presbyterian Church on Caldwell Street.
Standing in a circle, members listened to Bates describe how he came up with the name, for the benefit of a few visitors.
“I picked that name because it’s supposed to be the best fishing bait around, the nightcrawler,” he said. “We have become fishers of men.”
After a prayer and scripture reading, they set out singing “This Joy That I Have.”
During the next 90 minutes, members ranging in age from 8 to 76 years old would walk 17 blocks, stopping to pray several times at locations of shootings. break-ins or neighborhood landmarks like Livingstone College and Salisbury High School, where a student was shot and injured in February outside the gym.
They would ask God to bring the neighborhood together, protect each family and bring peace into their lives. They would sing and laugh but mostly walk in quiet conversation, guided by a few flashlights and cell phones.
They would not see a police officer.
“As we walk these streets, let them become holy streets,” a woman prays. “Let the ground be holy, Lord. We need you.”
“It’s not West side-East side God, but it’s the community of God’s people,” another says. “Allow us to see on earth what you see in heaven.”
Unlike a recent night crawl when the group encountered and eventually diffused a tense situation involving about 20 young adults, on this walk the members see just a few other people. Two men accept greetings and hugs, and a loud group on a front porch quiets as the Nightcrawlers pass.
Sometimes, Nightcrawlers invite people they run into to join them in prayer. Often, the pedestrians accept. The night of the altercation, many Nightcrawlers realized they knew several of the young people in the standoff and called them by name to come pray.
A half-dozen did, and the rest dispersed.
Some nights, people on the street will ask to pray with the Nightcrawlers.
“That lets me know that we are not out here in vain. When people are asking us, they are seeking something,” said Christal McRae, Bates’ cousin. “God put us here to fill a role. They want a connection, and that’s our job to be there for them.”
The idea for Nightcrawlers hit Bates after he attended anti-gang meetings hosted by the city several years ago. Hundreds of people came up with many great ideas about how to prevent gang activity, he said.
But as he looked at the lists up on the wall, Bates said he was struck that nearly all were suggestions of actions to take place between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“The Lord gave me the vision that something needs to happen at nighttime,” he said.
Nighttime, specifically Friday nights, were the hardest for Bates when he was battling his demons, he said.
“When I was struggling, Friday night was the longest night of the week for me,” he said. “If I could make it to Saturday, I was going to be OK. But Friday night it just seemed like the time was going so doggone slow.”
If someone had spoken to him on Friday nights, it would have helped immensely, Bates said.
Annie Miller Bates watched her son struggle and eventually turn his life around and share his vision for a unique outreach ministry. At first, when Bates and his uncle went out alone, Annie Bates said she was afraid for their safety.
“Then I decided it was time for this mother to get out here and help her son,” she said.
Now, mother and son walk together nearly every Friday. Annie Bates said she is not surprised that her son founded a group that at times swells to 60 or 70 members and has had police escorts.
“The day he was born, I had no name for him at all,” she said. “I opened up my Bible and I read Timothy, the first chapter and fourth verse. I said, ‘My child is going to be named Timothy, and I am giving him to God.’ “
Timothy Bates lives in Salisbury and pastors two churches in Statesville. He often prays that someone else will feel moved to start Nightcrawlers in another parts of the county.
It’s a supplication repeated Friday night.
“We pray that every Friday night there will be Nightcrawlers on the north, the south, the west and the east,” a woman prayed to enthusiastic endorsement. “God, let this not be the only Nightcrawler group, but every Friday night, let Nightcrawlers crawl all over the place.”
McRae’s 8-year-old daughter Christan stifled a yawn as the Nightcrawlers came full circle Friday night, returning to the church parking lot. McRae and her children — son Brandon Johnson is now a freshman at Wingate University — have walked with Bates since the beginning.
She said they have never been afraid.
“I have never had a hesitation,” McRae said. “It’s meant for us to be there, and we are going to be protected.”
She said she wants her children to understand the importance of serving their community in the broadest sense.
“If we could get over ourselves and get over being fearful of each other, we can make a bigger difference,” McRae said. “I want to teach her that whether we live in Spencer or Salisbury or wherever, it’s one community and everyone deserves to live in peace.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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