Sermons take on new urgency as clergy wrestle for truth

On this weekday night on the edge of autumn, the Rev. Walt Gerber's congregation has come by the scores and by the hundreds to listen.

They fill each pew and spill out into the hallways, craning their heads around pillars and through open doors, each here to make some sense of the images they have seen over and over again: buildings destroyed, cities mourning, lives changed.

But on this most trying of evenings, Mr. Gerber has few words to say. Standing beneath the dark wooden vault of his candlelit Presbyterian church, dressed all in black, he turns to the Psalms, to Paul, to the writings of those who have seen the worst of human hatred - and not lost faith.

More than that, though, he turns to the quiet of abject humility. "Above all, tonight we need silence," he says. "Don't be disturbed by it. Use it to seek this still, small voice that God is sending."

Like thousands of pastors, rabbis, and clerics across the United States, Gerber was called on to provide some sense of meaning for an event that he himself was struggling to understand. In prayer services and Sunday sermons, he and others spoke of the need for trust. They underscored the need for an even deeper sense of unity, as well as for patience and spiritual strength.

Yet even amid the uncertainty, each sermon was connected by an unmistakable thread of hope - that, despite the storms of confusion and fear, peace is waiting for those who seek it with all their heart, and evil can never be the victor.

"I don't think we've ever met in this sanctuary with such a sense of need," adds Gerber, "and that is when God becomes real. This is the first time for many of us that we've had to ask: 'Are these promises [in the Bible] real?' "

At his service in Menlo Park, Calif., the silence seemed an enforced respite from the cacophony of cable channels and news radio that has saturated Americans' lives since the morning hours of Sept. 11. In a room filled with hundreds of people, often the only sound was the hum of air conditioners and the creak of wooden pews.

Elsewhere, the message was much the same. "Be still," said the Rev. Hycel Taylor of Second Baptist Church in Evanston, Ill.

What concerns many of the clergy is not just a potentially rash military reaction to the attacks on New York and Washington, but also a hateful reaction against America's Arab-Americans.

As Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University in Washington, Imam Yahya Hendi is worried about that perhaps most of all. So in his Friday prayer service, his sermon was as much a statement of Muslim identity as a religious service.

"Islam does not focus only on the Muslim community, but also on those with whom we live," he says. "We are all made to be different, and how do we celebrate those differences? Through unconditional love and service to our neighbors."

Christian and Jewish colleagues from the Bay Area to Boston echoed those sentiments. In fact, the Rev. Chapin Garner of the United Church of Christ in Norwell, Mass., fashioned his whole Sunday sermon on the subject. We, as Americans, need to reconsider our concept of community - from next-door neighbors to international diplomacy - he told his congregation.

Preaching unity

"There is this underlying wish some folks harbor; they would like Christianity without the baggage of community; they would like life within this place to be neat and nice and somehow cleaner than their lives beyond these walls," he said. "I bring this up today because our willingness to exit from community plays out in our country's international relations as well.... There was a time, not long ago, when we believed and acted as if we could separate ourselves from the rest of the world whenever it suited our interests. Tuesday, Sept. 11, we found that belief to be flawed."

"No longer can we choose to exit from community," he added. "In times of trial and tumult, we don't leave the table, we draw closer to it."

Mr. Garner, however, didn't claim to

have any answers as to why such a thing had happened, and many of his colleagues were similarly wrestling with the seeming injustice of what had occurred.

Seeking peace

Before his Menlo Park congregation, Gerber frankly asked for help. "I don't think I've ever felt rage like I do," he said. "I'd like you to help me pray for it."

Their silence seemed a confirmation. They came to this whitewashed church in shaken solidarity to support one another and the whole world, with arms wrapped around spouses and heads bowed in contemplation. Afterward, they picked up copies of Bible citations and lingered in the lobby to embrace as many people as possible.

It is this spirit of charity and unity - more than bombs or brigades, religious leaders said - that shows that goodness can never be broken by an act of terrorism. "Tomorrow, the world will remain in need of people who can be instruments of peace," says Garner. "This doesn't change who we are or what we are about."

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