WASHINGTON – He had not written his Easter sermon yet, but the Rev. Tim Stern of Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton knew there was one topic that would feature prominently: Iraq.
The church is near Fort Meade and many of his congregants have either friends or family deployed overseas.
“People want to be assured that there is something larger, that there is hope,” the pastor said.
As Easter and Passover observances continue over the weekend, clergy and lay leaders from across the state and across the religious spectrum said world events will no doubt be on worshippers’ minds — but no more so than faith and security have since Sept. 11, 2001.
“People are concerned as much as any other time in the year,” said Mark Waldman, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Seaboard region, which is based in Rockville. “They just become a little more aware when there’s a big news day.”
At St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Baltimore, one congregant just came back from Iraq and a side altar contains pictures of parishioners on duty overseas, said the Rev. James L. McLinden.
In times of turmoil, regardless of the calendar, people often turn to religion, McLinden said.
“Persons realize the Lord is there and try to reach him out of anxiety, fear and their reverence to God,” he said.
During Passover Seders in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday, many people said special prayers not only for the safety of American soldiers but for peace in the Middle East, said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
For Jews, there has “always been a state of concern,” he said, especially since the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, which began in October 2000.
Though Passover is primarily celebrated at home, there are still safety concerns in the wake of a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Seder two years ago in northern Israel that killed 29 people, Abramson said.
“Unfortunately, terrorism has no borders,” he said.
While world events can play a role, most clergy say the peaks and valleys for attendance in services are fairly predictable.
The Rev. Edward Simpson, pastor at Harvester Baptist Church in Columbia, said he saw larger crowds once American troops began fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001. But those gains slowly go back to earlier levels, he said.
“Sometimes these foxhole conversions can be lasting, and sometimes people go back to normal,” he said.
Still, Simpson said it is logical that increased worship often coincides with world events.
“Americans in particular tend to be individuals and take care of things themselves,” he said. But with events like Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq, “people have a hard time putting their hands on it . . . or understanding. So they reach out to God.”
And clergy often find that world events can help them teach religious lessons.
Last year, shortly after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. troops, Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills left himself a note to reflect on the freedom of the Iraqi people at his Seder. He found that note again as he prepared for this year’s Seders, but viewed it in a different light.
Much like the Jews who left Egypt did not immediately get to Israel in the Passover story but took a more circuitous and sometimes dangerous route, freedom in Iraq follows the same pattern, he said.
“There is a road to freedom, and freedom comes not in great leaps, but in small steps,” he said. “So while we pray for the soldiers, we know freedom is an ongoing process.”
So is faith. At the First Baptist Church of Rockville, the Rev. Joel Gilbert said he has noticed a more general “rise in awareness post-9/11 and a return to spirituality.”
“A crisis or big media event makes people aware and ask the spiritual questions,” said Gilbert, the youth minister at the church. “It makes people question God highly or turn to Him.”
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