Three days after bomb blasts brought a devastating halt to the Boston Marathon, an interfaith “healing our city” gathering served as a focal point for Bostonians struggling to find comfort, renew their spirits, and express their care for one another.
It revealed a city that, while shaken by the violence, hasn’t been knocked off its feet.
“Your resolve is the greatest rebuke to whoever committed this heinous act,” said President Obama, who flew with the First Lady to Boston to attend the event alongside local leaders. “If they sought to intimidate us, to terrorize us, to shake us from … the values that make us who we are, as Americans – well, it should be pretty clear by now that they picked the wrong city to do it.”
Despite the somber occasion, Bostonians were in a mood to greet that sentiment with loud applause. And they rallied similarly behind the president when he tapped into the city’s passion for sports, predicting that crowds would again line Boylston Street for future marathons and post-championship parades.
But the event at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End also showed Mr. Obama and other leaders drawing strength from this city and its residents.
“You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good,” Obama said. “In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We’ll choose friendship. We’ll choose love.”
In tough times, those qualities heal, and they’ve been on display in Boston since Monday in everything from direct care for victims to small acts of kindness, such as sharing hugs with friends or stopping to hold a door for a stranger.
Bostonians have also been joining together at a range of prayer meetings. The service Obama attended Thursday, an interfaith event with various dignitaries on view and overflow crowds out in the street, was the biggest.
“Any time you have this kind of trauma … it’s important to have a way for everybody to get together,” said Byron Rushing, a representative in the statehouse who attended the meeting.
It is an important moment, he said, for a city of great diversity that has not always been known for cohesiveness, to preserve and build on a hard-won unity.
“We have worked very hard to be a city for everybody,” he said.
The meeting drew together people of all faiths and backgrounds – and it drew a much larger crowd than could fit in the roughly 2,000-seat cathedral.
While special access was provided for bombing victims and their families, others had to line up early in the morning for a chance to attend.
Monica Etzel, who was visiting from Salt Lake City, said Boston was slow and quiet, different than she remembered from her previous visits. “Boston is a grieving city,” she said as she waited to attend the 11 a.m. event. “The mood is somber, but people are being so kind.”
She got in line with her friend Kate Gladstein, a Boston resident, at 7:15 a.m. They hoped people would squeeze together inside in order to fit as many people as possible.
“The memorial service is a time for people to comfort each other,” said Ms. Gladstein. “I want to show my support as part of the community.”
Danica Blakslee, a student at Northeastern University, arrived at 7:30 for a chance to get in the cathedral. Wearing a yellow marathon volunteer jacket, she stood out in a line that wrapped around several city blocks.
For her, the memorial service was about being respectful to the victims – and to the larger Boston community. When the bombs exploded on Monday, she was standing near the finish line, passing out blankets to runners as they finished.
She described this week, including moments of confusion before she reunited with her mother after the blasts, as “surreal.”
“I came to show that I care ... to show that I would do anything to help,” Ms. Blakslee said.
When the service started, hundreds of people who were not able to get in lingered on the sidewalks and pressed against the police barricades. Nurses, students, and families stood shoulder to shoulder, listening to each other’s experiences and sharing hugs. People brought out smart phones and shared the streaming video of the service with those standing close.
After the meeting, as people exited the cathedral, people cheered as blue-uniformed police and others who had attended walked out. Some broke into spontaneous singing of the national anthem.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, exited the cathedral out a side door, but the president took additional time to thank first responders before leaving Boston.
Referring to the “grit” and compassion they displayed, he said that “when we see that kind of spirit, there’s something about that that's infectious,” Obama said, according to a transcript circulated to reporters. “It makes us all want to be better people…. The key is that we hang on to a little bit of that, because it’s right there under the surface every day.”
Obama’s remarks anchored a service that buoyed Bostonians in numerous ways. Musicians including the Boston Children’s Chorus and cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed.
Mayor Menino won applause with remarks emphasizing that “we have never loved [Boston] more … than we do today.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley shared a message from Pope Francis to Boston, citing the scriptural guidance not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.
For many of those attending, the event was moving and truly healing.
“Cathartic” was how James Howard, who works as a technician at Boston Medical Center, described the service afterward.
He said that, after busy days including a 16-hour shift as the marathon victims came in, it was helpful to have a gathering that included joy as well as somberness.
Governor Patrick was among the speakers Thursday who struck both of those emotional chords.
He spoke of the importance of gratitude, even amid tragedy. “I’m thankful for the lives of Krystle [Campbell] and [Lu] Lingzi, and little Martin [Richard]," he said, referring to the three people killed in the explosions.
Hyperbole perhaps. But on this day it was a reminder of traditions of civic strength that are serving the city, and the nation, well.