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Candles of courage

BY SUSAN KIM | ROCKVILLE, MD | October 22, 2002

"God, help us to live as people of faith, refusing to allow fear to dictate our daily lives. Even as we experience the senseless horror of these attacks, fill our hearts and lives with the desire to be peacemakers"

—Dr. Clark Lobenstine

"None of us is God," said the Rev. Chris Hobgood to a sea of candle-lit faces Tuesday night.

Dozens of Maryland, D.C., and Virginia residents gathered in solidarity against a sniper who has killed nine people, wounded three -- and claimed to police "I am God."

Tuesday morning marked what might be the tenth fatality attributed to the sniper. A bus driver was shot dead as he stood on the steps of his bus ready to start his workday. The same day police released a message from the sniper that said, "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

But fear didn't stop persons of many faiths from attending the ecumenical service at Faith United Methodist Church to pray for healing, hope and peace.

"None of us is God," said Hobgood, a regional minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "Yet all of us are precious to God. In this pain-filled time in our community, it is important to pray for all of God's children: for the medical people who care for these victims, for the countless in our community who live in fear."

And for whoever is killing people, he added. "We pray for those who -- for whatever reason -- turn deadly fury on the innocent."

Public officials -- among them Montgomery County, Md. Executive Doug Duncan, Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams -- prayed together at the service, which was called by the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and the Mayor's Interfaith Council of Washington.

More than 20 faith groups -- from Sikh to Islam to Jewish to Christian -- were represented.

Police also turned out in droves -- but mostly in the parking lot, where they stood guard near the band of woods surrounding the church.

Police have tried to communicate with the sniper four separate times through press briefings during the last several days. Investigators said the sniper's chilling message about children was a postscript on a message found at near a steakhouse in Ashland, Va. where a man was critically injured Saturday night.

The congregation recognized area law enforcement teams who have been trying to apprehend the sniper. "We thank God for the commitment and courage of these men and women," prayed the Rev. George Hackey, pastor at the Sharp Street United Methodist Church.

"God, protect and defend them as they place themselves in jeopardy. Fill them with tenacity and wisdom to solve these crimes."

Only one uniformed officer was able to come forward to personally receive a blessing. Dozens of others manned their posts outside as the service went on.

And no matter that the police outside and the press corps crammed into the church balcony vastly outnumbered the actual 100 or so parishioners -- in the end the congregation vowed to carry candles of courage out into the world and share them.

But not before sharing their grief. "Tonight we are called to a holy assembly. Let us come singing a song of anguish," said the Rev. Dr. Felton Edwin May, bishop for the Washington Area of The United Methodist Church.

A candle was lit for each of the victims as their names were read.

And since some parishioners weren't afraid to come out, faith leaders weren't afraid to publicly ask the question "why."

"Where are you when I need you, oh Lord?" asked Dr. Rajwant Singh during a reading from the Sikh tradition. "You are here, ever present in our heart."

While many in the affluent area are gripped by fear they say outstrips even post-Sept. 11 jitters, they also said these tough times make them remember others who live in fear. "There are communities across the land that are torn apart by violence every day," said the Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.

Through both ancient and modern readings, faith leaders together acknowledged what residents have been feeling since Oct. 2, when the sniper attacks began: sometimes it's scary to go on with everyday life.

"We fill our cars with gas. We shop and eat at restaurants. We are all affected by the events of the last few weeks," said Lobenstine.

He prayed: "God, help us to live as people of faith, refusing to allow fear to dictate our daily lives. Even as we experience the senseless horror of these attacks, fill our hearts and lives with the desire to be peacemakers."

"Death could be upon any of us," added Carole Miller of the Regional Baha'I Council of the Southern States. "That's why we really have to live each day like we're going to make a difference in this life."

And hope can overcome fear, she said. "We can arise and overcome these spiritual tribulations," she said.

And as the candlelight passed from one to another, Lobenstine looked out at the congregation and added: "Look, the light has grown in the darkness."

May asked people to carry out that light instead of fear. "Your candles have been lit. Go out into the night and let your light shine," he urged.

"Rather than curse the darkness, we light the light in this community."

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