The fifth-floor auditorium of Baltimore's police headquarters, normally the scene of solemn events such as academy graduations and medal ceremonies, rocked during the lunch hour yesterday with the evangelical fervor of a revival.
Uniformed police officers, plainclothes detectives and civilian workers filled the room with gospel music, clapping and "Amens" during the department's first interfaith worship service.
"I'm just praising God for the opportunity to see people of faith come together," said a slightly out-of-breath Aloma Taylor after the hourlong service.
"This is something we have been working for for a long time," said Taylor, a 911 operator who worships at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore. "We thought it would never happen."
The catalyst is the Rev. Theresa E. Smith Mercer, whom Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier hired in December to be the department's full-time chaplain coordinator. She is doubling the size of the chaplain corps from nine and wants to professionalize the corps by having members take courses.
The intensity of the worship seemed to surprise even the prayer service's organizer.
"There was quite a spirit in there," Mercer said. "I knew we had a lot of faith people here at the Police Department."
The service started sedately, as an officer sang the hymn "God of Our Fathers" to piano, trumpet and timpani drums as the chaplain corps and some of the police command staff, including Frazier, marched to the stage.
Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog of Beth Shalom congregation in Taylorsville, Carroll County, offered the opening prayer.
"We ask your blessings upon the fine men and women of this Police Department," he said. "Keep them safe and out of the reach of harm's way. Be with them on every footstep and every action, that they may fulfill their responsibilities and carry out their duties in an honest, moral, ethical and dedicated fashion."
The enthusiasm and response from the congregation built slowly. As the Rev. Eddie A. Montgomery of West Baltimore's Family Bible Church began to read from Proverbs 3 in a deep baritone, he was greeted by responses of "Amen."
By the time the choir broke into the gospel classic "Amen," people were standing, hands clapping, bodies swaying, arms outstretched.
Then there was absolute silence as Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, a Muslim chaplain for the Police Department and the Johns Hopkins University, chanted the opening verses of the Koran in Arabic, and then explained their meaning in English.
Frazier liked what he saw and heard. He leaned over to Mercer and told her the department should hold such an event every week, starting next month. Mercer got up and relayed the commissioner's message, which was greeted by a standing ovation of several minutes by the crowd of about 200. Frazier was visibly moved.
"I had tears in my eyes," he said after the service.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to come together at lunch, where we work, in an interfaith way for not only a spiritual uplift but for an educational opportunity as well," said Frazier, an Episcopalian who worships at Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore. After hearing Arafat speak about what Islam had in common with Christianity and Judaism, "People came up to me and said, 'I never really knew that about the Muslim faith.' "
For Taylor, the 911 operator, the worship experience was an inspirational break from a stress-filled job.
"I sit down at my terminal every day and I pray, because I know I won't get through it without some spiritual help," she said. "We really need this to help us. Sunday to Sunday is one thing. But if you can get a little bit of help during the week, that would be great."
Pub Date: 8/06/98