In the warmth of the spring sun, mothers with babies in strollers mingled with workers on their lunch hour in a Westminster park yesterday. People knelt on the grass, sat in beach chairs or leaned against a sturdy tree. Some spread blankets on the ground while many stood.
The gathering grew steadily as passers-by noticed the crowd praying and singing near the Carroll County courthouse, and then they, too, stayed to pray.
About 150 people joined in the county observance of the National Day of Prayer at the Vietnam Memorial in Westminster.
Sarah Frazier of Westminster, who came to pray after hearing about the event on a Christian radio program, said she was dismayed at the lack of publicity.
"It is almost as though we are embarrassed to admit being a Christian," she said. "We have become so aware of tolerance for other faiths that we have buried the Christian faith. We have as much right to proclaim our Christianity as other religions."
Those attending evinced no shyness about proclaiming their faith. People raised their hands to the heavens or folded them piously. They bowed their heads, closed their eyes and clasped Bibles. They shouted "alleluia" and "amen" to the exhortations from prayer leaders. They sang and swayed gently to lively hymns. Many sported red, white and blue stickers that read "I prayed."
Kathy Dillon of Hampstead wore a T-shirt imprinted with "Prayer. Environmentally safe. Will not harm the ozone."
"Public prayer is important," Dillon said. "Our nation was founded on prayer, and without that connection we are in a mess."
Stirring hymns, Scriptural passages and fervent petitions marked the county's celebration of the national event that dates to 1952. The crowd surrounded a granite memorial etched with the community's gratitude for "those who risked it all" and the names of Carroll County residents killed in Vietnam.
"As we stand in front of this memorial, we are reminded of the sacrifice of these men and women, many of whom came through our schools," said Walter Brilhart, the county school system's budget supervisor, who led prayers for education.
He offered thanks for "the God-fearing attitude of school leaders" and praise for the commitment and boldness of students who prayed around flagpoles earlier in the day.
Charles I. Ecker, county superintendent of schools, asked for prayers for educators.
"I know we can't pray in the public schoolrooms today, and that is a shame," Ecker said. "We are teaching character traits, and we need families to help."
Two readers chose a prayer written for the event by Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, that asked for blessings on the military "as it advances freedom's cause around the world."
Like Carroll, many communities across the state organized a noontime event. In Annapolis, Marcia Reinhart, state coordinator for the event, led prayers at Lawyers Mall. In Baltimore, Streetlite Christian Fellowship organized a prayer rally in War Memorial Plaza. Several churches opened their doors last night to allow the working public to participate in the nationwide event.
Carroll County held several services. One at the Farm Museum was geared toward youths. Another at Liberty High School yesterday evening mixed prayers and patriotism. The noon service in Westminster began with "The Star-Spangled Banner," sung a cappella by a children's choir, whose struggles to hit the higher notes generated soft laughter.
During the gathering, pastors, business professionals, homemakers and officials led prayers for government, the military, the media, education, families and the church.
The Rev. Nathan Combs of Carroll Community Church in Eldersburg said people do not need a building to pray.
"Church is not a cold, lifeless stone building," he said. "Church is the people transformed."
The many young children seemed to understand the solemnity of the moment and nestled quietly in their parents' arms. "I think they get a sense from adults that this is important, and they are used to being around prayer," said Linda Gadow, who took her 5-year-old twin granddaughters to the event. "It is important for people to know prayer is a part of life, not just one day a year."
The service went nearly 30 minutes past its promised hour, but few people left. The gathering ended with a communal Lord's Prayer that had many joining hands as they prayed.
"Sometimes, it seems like this country is on crutches," said Robert Kimmel of Westminster. "But we can turn the corner, if we put God first."