NEW YORK -- Faced with the most daunting task of their careers yesterday, religious leaders in and around New York tried to give solace to the inconsolable and make sense of the death and destruction that have dominated the lives of all Americans, especially those closest to the World Trade Center tragedy.
Houses of worship in and around the nerve center of devastation have been flooded with the religious and nonreligious, all searching for answers through the teachings of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Many of the clergy draped their buildings with American flags and began and ended their services with "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." They delivered messages to the millions of tearful, expectant eyes peering up at them, saying there is a reason to believe the world is good -- even in the face of terrorism and hatred.
"We have seen evil up close, and we struggle to understand," said a letter from Archbishop Edward Egan of New York, which was read in more than 400 churches across the state. "The events of September 11 have upset and confused us. But they have not shaken our faith. ... We are a united people, a people of courage."
The Rev. Joseph A. Cogo, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Greenwich Village, read the letter, then led a ceremony at his church one mile from the site of the attack, where billowing smoke is constantly in the background.
"It's times like these we realize the real value in life," Cogo said. "Let's pray for the firefighters, volunteers and public officials who will mend the wound that has been inflicted upon us. For all those who died September 11, God will have them with him as a reward for their sacrifice."
Many people in the pews knew someone who perished in the buildings. Several knew some of the 10 firefighters from a nearby firehouse who lost their lives in the attack.
"It just doesn't seem real," said Susan Murray, who sat on the church steps at 7:30 a.m., waiting for the service that started at 9 a.m. Murray knew a firefighter and two others who were lost in the towers and arrived at the church early so she could have time alone there.
Across town in Brooklyn, Rabbi Niles Goldstein, founder of New Shul temple, said Friday night's service was "covered in a blanket of grief and pain."
"The only thing you can proffer is the ministry of presence. You just offer yourself, whether it's an ear to listen or a heart to lend," Goldstein said. "People just want community and want to know others care about them and they're not alone."
At St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of New York's most prominent churches, thousands filled pews at the morning masses.
Sgt. Edwin Stuart attended the 9 a.m. service in Army fatigues with three others from his military police platoon in Orangeburg, N.Y., who had been patrolling the World Trade Center site since Tuesday. Stuart's 25-year-old brother, Walwin, who is a Port Authority police officer, was among the first to arrive at the World Trade Center after the attacks and has been missing since.
"We're still praying for him to come out of there alive," said Stuart, 35, speaking slower as his eyes moistened. "I try to be strong, but there are certain times when things just bring on hurt and feelings of hopelessness."
'Put anger aside'
Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, rector of St. Patrick's Cathedral, used his sermon to stress the need for clear thinking.
"You and I should be careful not to stay on the level of anger and fury and demand retaliation," he said. "We must ... put anger aside -- not because it's not justified. Anger is a primitive thing. It slows good thinking. We are dealing with an uncommon evil in our time, and you and I probably know from life that you cannot reason with a fanatic."
On the Upper West Side, about 80 people in one of the chapels inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the seat of New York's Episcopal diocese, heard clergy talk forcefully about peace and tolerance.
The Rev. Storm Swain stood in the aisle between the pews and talked about a Roman Catholic woman whose two sons worked in the towers -- one got out, one didn't.
"She told me she was so full of hate and anger one day. She said she knew it was wrong but that she just had to get it out," Swain said.
"How do we speak words of peace and forgiveness and mercy to those among us who have lost?" she said. "We don't speak easy words at this time. What we do is listen. Listen to the stories. We are called to sit alongside these people."
That includes Muslims, Swain added. One Muslim woman she spoke to has been "reviled and spit on" since Tuesday, she said. "She lost her father, brother and son in the World Trade Center."
Death, she said, was not the worst thing that can happen. "The worst thing that can happen is that we could carry on the violence, and we could carry it to people who are innocent," she said.
At mosques around New York, Muslims prayed for the safety of America.
Mohamed Gemealia, the imam, or head priest of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, held vigils yesterday to pray for the victims.
"We've reminded the Muslim community of the tolerance and peace that our religion guides us to do," said Gemealia, who has 1,500 members in his mosque and was concerned it would be a target of violence. He called the attack on the World Trade Center "barbaric behavior."
"Civilized people do not behave like that," he said. "A lot of Arab-Americans are good citizens. In the eyes of Allah, if you hurt and kill one soul or human being it is worse than destroying the whole universe. It is forbidden totally to harm any human being."
Outside of New York City, scores of bedroom communities in Connecticut, places such as Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Westport and Fairfield, have been affected by the devastation in New York.
At St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church in Fairfield, about an hour outside Manhattan, the carillon pealed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as parishioners left a packed 11 a.m. service yesterday.
"The minister gave a moving sermon about how we all need to pull together," said Janet Almeida, 54, a nurse and mother of three. "One of my son's soccer mates from Staples High School in Westport [a neighboring town] went down in the towers with his brother. There's three kids in that family, and two of them are gone. And one of my daughter's bridesmaids, her husband went down in the tower, too. ... It's very sad, very sad."
Priests and ministers in churches in New Jersey -- some of which were in view of the smoke -- called for prayer, calm, and, in some cases, for just retribution.
Prayers for leaders
Some church leaders also urged parishioners to pray for President Bush and other U.S. leaders.
"We must concentrate on those who lost their lives and for those who are injured, said the Rev. John S. Antao, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, a Roman Catholic Church in Elizabeth, N.J. "But we must pray a lot for our leaders. It won't be easy to make the right decision, and the whole world will be affected."
In Harlem, at the Greater Refuge Temple, the mood was almost defiant as at least 1,000 people sang, danced and prayed, thanking God to be alive. Someone announced that they were still looking for one congregant, last seen on the 97th floor of Tower One -- the north tower -- of the World Trade Center.
Corey Thompson, 22, came to Greater Refuge yesterday, sometimes standing and clapping, but mostly sitting quietly. He had never been to church before.
"I just felt it was time," he said. Thompson worked as a security guard at the World Trade Center but was on the night shift, and so left just before the attacks.
"I have a lot to be thankful for," he said softly.
Being at church helped him feel better, he said. Before he placed a $5 bill into the collection basket, he wrote on it, "Thank you God, for life."
Sun staff writers Jim Haner and Holly Selby contributed to this article.