As US gas prices soar, some pray to God for help
The last time Rocky Twyman and friends invoked the power of prayer to pull down the price of gasoline was in 2008, when a gallon of regular was going for a US national average of $4.12 in mid-summer.
God must have been listening: prices did fall, all the way to $1.61 in November that same year, as Twyman went coast to coast with his media-friendly Pray at the Pump movement.
But four years on gasoline prices are getting back up, and Twyman is swinging into action once again.
"Bring down these prices, God!" the silver-haired grassroots activist from Maryland urged the Almighty on Thursday at the base of the $4.05 sign outside Congressional Exxon, a five minute walk from the Capitol.
"Too many people are suffering," he said, holding a "honk if you want $2 gas now" sign in his hands.
Nobody honked, but Twyman, 63, and his companions persevered.
They sang "bring the gas prices down" to the tune of "This Little Light of Mine," a children's gospel ditty, then "we'll have lower gas prices" to the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." The words really did fit the music.
"We just think the only thing that can help us right now is divine intervention," Twyman, sporting a colorful West African dashiki shirt, told reporters who outnumbered his small but committed flock in the afternoon sun.
He urged President Barack Obama to host "a bipartisan White House prayer summit for lower gas prices" and mooted a prayer vigil next week at the embassy of Saudi Arabia, the second-biggest source of US oil imports after Canada.
"We've got gridlock in Congress ... and with all the stuff going on the Middle East, I mean, they can't seem to be able to solve this situation," Twyman said. "We're just turning it over to a mightier power."
The American Automobile Association (AAA) predicts gasoline prices across the United States could average $4.25 a gallon by May, up from $3.61 today. (Between 1998 and 2004, prices ranged from $1 to $2).
Prices vary wildly between regions, however, and on Thursday, gasbuddy.com, a website that tracks prices in all 50 states, reported $5.09 a gallon at one Mobil and two Chevron stations in greater Los Angeles.
Given that 76 percent of Americans drive themselves to work, and a trip to the store can often mean a long drive to the mall, higher gas prices are a critical issue -- especially in a presidential election year like this one.
On a campaign swing through Florida on Thursday, Obama mocked Republican rivals who have been wooing supporters with visions of America returning to the days of $2 a gallon gasoline.
"Just like last year, the biggest thing that's causing the price of oil to rise right now is instability in the Middle East -- this time in Iran," the president said.
Other factors include the shutdown of refineries in Pennsylvania and the US Virgin Islands, and the prospect of jobless Americans getting back to work as the economy improves, AAA public relations director Nancy White said.
"As more people are employed, the question is, will we see demand for gas pick up," thus pushing up the price even more, she told AFP.
Watching Twyman's flash prayer mob from a distance, Joseph Rohayem, who runs Congressional Exxon, cited yet another, more local reason why prices at his pumps have punched through the $4 mark.
Under local law, tenant operators like Rohayem must buy their fuel only from their landlords -- and in Washington, just one entrepreneur, a fuel wholesaler, owns about half the town's filling stations.
"What's happening is that we have a middle man between Exxon and us," he told AFP. "In my opinion, we should be 15 cents less... I wish we could sell for $1 a gallon."
Back among Twyman's prayer group, feisty octogenarian Harriet Langley offered a more succinct explanation for high gas prices: "Do you believe in the Devil? That's who's doing it. It's not God."
"But God is going to turn this around," she added. "He hears and answers prayers. Ask and believe it, and it's already done. Ask, believe and claim -- that's the ABC of prayer."