Prayer, solace, patriotism in NY; Crowds find refuge at houses of worship across city, nation

Monday, September 17, 2001
Page 8A

Prayer, solace, patriotism in NY
Crowds find refuge at houses of worship across city, nation

From Staff Reports

NEW YORK – Only 17 of the 56 regular parishioners at John Street United Methodist Church made it to Sunday’s services.

Some of the missing were probably held up by policemen trying to keep people out of southern Manhattan. Others were forever lost in the World Trade Center’s wreckage, just three blocks away.

The church was the closest to the disaster to hold regular services Sunday. Soloist John Easterlin sang a hymn he had chosen a day before the terror began:

Lord make me an instrument of thy peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; … Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.

“God chose this song for this Sunday, even before this war started,” Mr. Easterlin said. “It’s eerie that it’s so appropriate. I didn’t practice it because I didn’t know if I could get through it twice.”

Without electricity, the wooden church was lighted by handheld candles. Soot blanketed its roof and flew inside whenever a door opened. Armed National Guardsmen in gas masks patrolled the area. Toxic fumes from a nearby blown generator lingered.

Outside, war was everywhere. But inside, there was only peace.

Across New York and the nation, churches served record crowds Sunday. Some were regular worshipers seeking solace. For others, going to church was an unusual event spurred by unusual circumstances.

“It’s the first time in seven years,” said Roger Pacheco, who said he attended Mass at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral because it is a symbol of New York. His 26-year-old cousin, Roland Pacheco, is among the missing.

With volunteers being turned away by some relief agencies, which say they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of help and supplies, some New Yorkers felt powerless to help in any but a spiritual way.

“We can’t do anything down there,” explained Natalie Parra, 25, also at St. Patrick’s. “So we figured we could pray.”

“This country needs to pray and come together at a time like this,” said Lily Ling, a 32-year-old who attended the John Street services. “It was hard to get here, but even a tragedy like this won’t stop me from going to church.”

At Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III gave a spirited and eloquent sermon, urging 3,000 worshipers to turn to God to manage their fear. A large choir stood behind the pastor, swaying and harmonizing while singing, “The Lord is my strength; whom shall I fear?”

Dr. Butts pointed to the hundreds of firefighters killed at the Trade Center as examples to follow.

“The firemen did not let fear paralyze them,” he said. “The firemen learned to manage their fear to save the lives of their sisters and brothers. Perfect love for humanity cast away their fear. The greatest monument we can give to them is for us to overcome our fear.”

He asked for those in the gallery to call out the names of their missing friends or loved ones, and several did so. Dr. Butts ended the sermon by asking the gallery to join choir members’ voices in a rousing, fast-tempo version of “This Little Light of Mine.”

“In this dark world, we need to have some light shining right now,” he said.

At the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Imam Mohammad Gemeaha reminded worshipers that under Islamic law, it is always wrong to take innocent lives.

“My message was that our religion is a religion of peace, a religion of mercy,” Imam Gemeaha told reporters after the service. “We pray to God to show his mercy and to accept all of the victims into paradise.”

But Muhammad Abulmalik, an imam from Brooklyn who delivered a guest sermon Sunday, criticized military and political leaders and said that U.S. policies toward the Middle East had caused deaths around the world.

At St. Patrick’s, decorated with purple and black funeral bunting, Masses attracted huge crowds throughout the day. Speakers were set up outside so those who couldn’t get in could hear an afternoon Mass delivered by Cardinal Edward Egan, New York’s archbishop.

“In the last week, we have truly seen and experienced the presence of evil in the world,” the Rev. Dominick Dellaporte said at St. Patrick’s. “And we have seen the presence of God in the world.”

St. Patrick’s rector, Monsignor Eugene Clark, urged members of the congregation to attend the thousands of funerals expected around the city. “When we extend our condolences, it accomplishes a great deal,” Monsignor Clark said. “We mustn’t underestimate the value in that.”

Spc. Anthony Philip, an Army National Guardsman dressed in black boots and stiff camouflage, sought solace from the 12-hour shifts he has been working at ground zero since Tuesday.

“I told my sergeant I needed some time to meditate,” Spc. Philip said. “I needed some time to pray for all the victims.”

Staff writers Holly Becka, Terri Langford, Christopher Lee and Juliet Macur in New York and staff writer Joshua Benton in Dallas contributed to this report.