The sounds of heartfelt prayer and solemn hymns rose above the constant din of traffic, the incessant racket from construction and the lunchtime babble on a bustling Main Street yesterday.
The noise did not distract a crowd gathered at noon outside the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air. They heard only their shared voices joined in prayer.
In a scene replicated throughout the country, people came together and observed National Day of Prayer with petitions, familiar hymns and patriotic anthems.
"I could hear over all the construction, and I saw people coming out of businesses to join us," said Karen Grove of Forest Hill, who was with her two young children.
"It does not matter who hears us," Grove added. "We are praying for everyone around us, hoping they soak it up, lock prayer in their hearts and take it home with them."
Organized under the auspices of a national task force, the gatherings are largely coordinated by local groups. In Annapolis, Cumberland, Baltimore and other places across Maryland, respectful crowds marked what has become an annual observance on the first Thursday of May since 1952, when Congress established National Day of Prayer.
"We all need to be covered in prayer," said Terry Sangtinette of Bel Air.
Some gathered in churches, but most chose outdoor settings.
"The visibility here on Main Street is good," said Lisa McLaughlin, who accompanied her husband, the Rev. Craig McLaughlin, pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air. "It reminds the community of the power of prayer and gives strength to those that know the Lord but may not be bold enough to show it publicly."
Prayer leaders often relied on the Scripture and words that national organizers recommended for the day. They asked for aid to a nation at the crossroads, taking inspiration from this year's Scriptural theme - "The Lord is my strength and shield."
Organizers suggested opening with the "2008 Prayer for our Nation" by Ravi Zacharias, honorary national chairman. His petition includes a request for guidance "to elect one who will honor you."
In Bel Air, the event began with "The Star Spangled Banner" and the Pledge of Allegiance before the flag waving outside the building that has dominated Main Street for more than 150 years.
Led by area pastors of various faiths, participants prayed for families, teachers, the courts and for the country, with many mindful of the presidential election. Several of those walking through downtown joined them.
Beth Alexander came from her job at the bank across Main Street from the courthouse.
"I hope all my co-workers are looking at me," she said.
Chris Schlehr, Bel Air's town administrator, said he was taking a break from municipal business to pray. "It is time well-spent," he said. "We should be praying for the country and its leaders every day, instead of once a year."
Gwen Clark of Fallston wanted to publicly display her faith.
"This country was founded on Christian principles," she said. "We should be able to pray in public. Instead, it has turned out to be the opposite and people are embarrassed to pray."
C. Anne Fischer of Bel Air said praying with friends and joining hands with those she had just met showed "the presence of God in this gathering."
Raindrops began to fall before the service ended, but weather did not deter the crowd anymore than the background noise.