Church, state get closer for a day
Nearly 100 gather in Bel Air for National Day of Prayer observance
By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltmore Sun, May 4, 2007
While noontime traffic rolled past on Main Street in Bel Air yesterday, a crowd of about 100 people gathered in front of the Harford County Courthouse in small groups. Clusters of strangers filled the courtyard, locking arms with one another, eyes closed and heads bowed.
This was not the monthly assembly of peace demonstrators, the casual lunch bunch on a pleasant spring day, or the concert-goers at the town's weekly First Friday events, all of whom convene regularly on the courthouse grounds in the county seat. This group had come to pray and sing in voices that overcame the din of cars, trucks and sirens. "This is what I like - a church with no walls," said the Rev. Tim Rabbitt of Harbor of Grace Assembly of God in Havre de Grace, one of the prayer leaders.
As was the case in hundreds of communities across the nation yesterday, the crowd in Harford was observing the 56th annual National Day of Prayer. In Annapolis, Cumberland, Westminster and many other Maryland towns, people left their homes and offices to gather and pray for government leaders, for the military, education and for peace.
"We have a nice, warm spot, a beautiful day, and it's our responsibility to come together and pray," said Debra Durham of Bel Air. "I am humble before my Lord in my city and thankful for the opportunity I have to do that."
The event dates to 1952, when Congress declared that the observance take place each year on the first Thursday of May. Organized under the auspices of a national task force, the gatherings are largely coordinated by local organizations. The participants focus on a specific Scripture passage each year, and mirror the traditional theme of prayer for the nation's leaders.
In his prayer circle, Rabbitt found himself surrounded by local politicians - County Executive David R. Craig, County Council President Billy Boniface and Del. Barry Glassman.
"He prayed with us and told us the decisions we make are bigger than the three of us," Boniface said.
Some said the setting was part of the message.
"We have come to the place where our government is to pray," said the Rev. Craig McLaughlin, pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air.
The tradition stretches not only to 1952, but also to the country's founding, said Lee Merrell, Harford County coordinator for the event. He read George Washington's 1789 proclamation, in which the first president wrote: "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God."
Similar gatherings took place yesterday in Annapolis, where participants prayed on Capitol Circle. In Westminster, a crowd about 70 people spread out across the lawn at the Carroll County Farm Museum, with sun streaming through a canopy of trees. The program for the event said the idea is for the crowd to come together, despite the religious differences, in a place of peace.
In Bel Air, the participants stood before a 150-year-old brick courthouse, within sight of the county administrative buildings.
"It's nice to be praying on state property," said Greg Gaskill, a Bel Air resident.
Merrell volunteered to organize the event in Harford this year in hopes of building a crowd and a local tradition. He contacted several churches, invited pastors to speak and even found someone to provide music: Lisa McLaughlin, the pastor's wife, who played guitar. She began with the National Anthem and "America the Beautiful," asking everyone to "sing boldly. We are praising the Lord for what he has done for us."
The crowd turned and faced the flag flapping in the breeze to the right of courthouse square for those two songs, and for the Pledge of Allegiance.
DeSales Kelly-Eck said she came to pray for her niece, a freshman at Virginia Tech. "The events there certainly bring home the need to pray," the Bel Air resident said. "I felt led to be here today."
Claudine Thompson tried to pray as she kept an eye on her 2-year-old daughter, Esther, who ran through the grass and toddled up the courthouse steps.
"It is important to make some public proclamation, declare our faith unashamedly and stand in unity," she said.
On its Web site, the national task force says it seeks to foster unity within the Christian church, though it also holds respect for all people, regardless of denomination or creed. On a day when the boundaries between religions seemed to subside, at least temporarily, even unbelievers refrained from voicing objection to the event.
Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said she has no problem with the gatherings but was uneasy with the close connection with government and its leaders.
"I do have a problem with government endorsing this day," she said by phone from Parsippany, N.J., where the group is headquartered. "Government should not be involved in endorsing this medieval activity."
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