Show of faith rises amid fear
By STEPHEN BUCKLEY
© St. Petersburg Times,
The scenes repeated themselves across the country Tuesday: People standing in stunned, paralyzed silence around television sets at malls, offices, shoeshine stands. Knots of folks clustered along sidewalks, sharing their horror. Believers gathered in temples of worship to weep and pray.
It was a day of unreality. A day of numbness and fear. The full details were elusive, but this much everyone knew: Three airliners crashed, deliberately, into buildings that shout"America": the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
People questioned themselves, their government, even their God. And it was clear that soon confusion and helplessness would fall away to rage.
There was a sense that everything changed.
"We have been living in a fool's paradise ... that the United States is strong and we are competent to take care of ourselves," said Virginia Lewis, a retired schools administrator who lives in College Harbor in St. Petersburg. "Suddenly we are made aware that we are very vulnerable."
Lewis could not tug herself away from the television. She said she was in a fog. She felt "alarmed."
"This is a historic day, this is a tragic day," she said.
The Rev. Jerry Sanders of Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, N.J., was in St. Petersburg Tuesday conducting a revival. He had called his church office, desperate for information about parishioners who work in New York City. By mid-afternoon, he still had no news.
The Rev. M.L. Jemison, pastor of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, said the feelings that spilled over him Tuesday were depressingly familiar. In 1995, he lost four members to a bomb that decimated the Alfred P. Murrah federal building there.
"And (Tuesday) I felt the same anger resurface as I watched literally thousands of lives be wasted," Jemison said. "I'm angry as hell over this."
After the 1995 bombing, members of his congregation didn't want to go near tall buildings. They didn't want to be near crowds. He himself didn't sleep well for two weeks.
And there probably will be more of that this time -- except it will not be just Oklahoma City that walks around in a haze of fear and numb paranoia.
The symbolic power of the buildings and cities involved likely will mean that millions of Americans, even those who disdain places like New York and Washington, will be touched.
There were comparisons to Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the killings at Columbine. And there was a sense that this tragedy could dwarf all of those.
"Not since Pearl Harbor has the United States been attacked in its own territory as we were today," Sen. Bob Graham said at a news conference. "It will be a time of a loss of innocence and an awareness of the fact that we are not invulnerable from terrorist attacks. It's not a potential. It is now become a tragic reality."
"Everybody will end up knowing somebody who had some sort of connection to what happened today," said Robert Mahoney, a sociologist at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. "There will be a great deal of shock."
The nation virtually shut down after the bombing, and that too will only ratchet up the sense of shock. Planes were to be grounded at least until noon today. Thousands of businesses and organizations -- banks, malls, restaurants, synagogues, mosques, schools -- closed early Tuesday.
"All of that will be a constant trigger of uncertainty that reinforces our sense of vulnerability," Mahoney said.
People had already begun to seek anchors, pouring into churches for prayer meetings and candlelight vigils and, in some cases, simple silence.
Jeanne Pepe stood at the back of a dark empty Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg Tuesday afternoon. The 68-year-old great-grandmother stared at electric candles. She had spent the morning sobbing and was relieved to hear that she didn't have to go into the clothing store where she works. She grabbed her straw purse and went to church instead.
"I just don't know what's happening in this world, to this world," she said. "I think God must be trying to tell us something with all this tragedy."
At Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater, Marcia Robey led her two children, Christopher and Sarah, to an enormous map in the prayer room. Worshipers sat on chairs, tears wetting their faces. Others stared straight ahead, trancelike.
The Robey family stood before the map and held hands. Each then placed a free hand on New York City and prayed silently.
"I prayed that the attacks would stop and we don't go to war," said Christopher, 13.
"I prayed for the victims and families," Marcia Robey said. She also prayed that "the attacks stop and for the innocent Muslims in this country that are going to come under attack."
Sadness quickly turned into suspicion. And Muslims, as they were in 1995, were again the potential targets. There was speculation about Muslim extremist groups and talk of retribution.
"When America gets mad, it turns to the Old Testament," said Robert Butterworth, a clinical psychologist from California who specializes in traumatic events. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
People should be angry, said Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg. Yet, "It is important to be careful about how that anger is addressed and against whom it is directed."
Ministers already were walking a tightrope. They counseled worshipers to stay calm, to resist the instinct to hate and to judge. And yet they were careful to speak of the need to respond quickly -- and with great force.
"We are not an amoral country, and we don't need to become one at this time," Jemison, the Oklahoma City pastor, said. That said, "We need to defend ourselves. We can't stand by and allow this kind of thing to happen. Otherwise, we're just asking for it to happen again."
- Times staff writers Stephen Nohlgren, Waveney Ann Moore, Eric Stirgus and Lane DeGregory contributed to this story.
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