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People seek consolation in their houses of worship

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By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001


In his sermon last Sunday, titled "Why Do People Suffer?" Hyde Park United Methodist minister Jim Harnish told how Jesus spoke of a tower in Siloam that collapsed and killed construction workers.

On Wednesday, Harnish could not help but marvel at the fact his sermon was delivered two days before the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Many in Harnish's congregation leaned on his message in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, hoping -- as Harnish suggested -- that God would help put their broken pieces back together.

People filled the chapel at Harnish's church Tuesday night for a special prayer service.

"We spent most of the service in prayer, and we invited anyone who wanted to to share their own word of prayer," Harnish explained. "That was a very powerful experience."

The scene was the same at places of worship all across Tampa Bay Tuesday night, and again on Wednesday. From the Congregation Schaarai Zedek in South Tampa to First Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, people flocked for counsel, consolation and clarity.

Faith is what will sustain them through the next days, weeks and months. Faith is what will allow them to see jets in the sky as majestic machines instead of missiles guided by madmen.

"Because American lives tend to be so fragmented, I sense people wanting to be with other people in the community, uniting with other people in prayer," said Tim Mann, pastor of worship at First Baptist of St. Petersburg. "The definite mood is vulnerability. It's kind of ironic that after our national vulnerability has been exposed, we in turn are showing our own vulnerability to one another."

Richard Birnholz, senior rabbi at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, said the nation had suffered a tremendous loss of life as well as a loss of innocence, but he said he would stress facing the future with hope at a memorial Wednesday night.

"We have to realize what enormous gifts we have as a society and build on our resources to create a new tomorrow," Birnholz said.

At Brandon's Nativity Catholic Church, where 1,500 people gathered Tuesday night, Father Ralph Argentino had to offer assurance while he was seeking an answer of his own.

Argentino spoke of keeping the faith, but privately the Brooklyn native wondered about a cousin who worked in Tower 7 at the World Trade Center. As of Wednesday afternoon, he still had not received word about his cousin.

Who counsels the priest in need of counsel?

"You have to have faith in God," Argentino said. "If God has snatched him away, hopefully he has gone to a better place. If he's still here, we rejoice.

"Death is alway painful; we can't get away from that. But we have to see past that."

For those who wonder how a loving God could allow such a tragedy to take place, Argentino offered that the terrorism was a result of man's free will, not an act of God.

"If God can weep, yesterday he did weep for seeing how we misused our gifts and how cruel we could be to each other," Argentino said.

The Rev. Kelvin McCree at St. Petersburg's Bible Truth Christian Fellowship, offered a different perspective. He said the terrorism was a message from God.

"It's calling us back to repent; it's calling us back to God," said McCree. "It's clear through history God has allowed certain events to drive us back to his presence.

"He opens our ears in adversity."

McCree said he also would try to create an atmosphere of tolerance and reach out to the local Arab community "because they may be unjustly targeted."

Dr. Hugh Terrell, part of the pastoral team at the International Temple of Light in Clearwater, said Christians need to forgive the terrorists.

"Forgive not what was done, but the people who did it," Terrell said. "No one said it's easy to walk a spiritual path. Forgive them because they, too, are children of God, no matter how twisted we might think they are."

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