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The times that try one's faith

The Orange County Register

They are the terrifying questions, the questions that can break a believer or repair a shattered faith.

Does God cause or condone evil? Do murder victims who do not believe in God go to heaven or hell? Can Islam, Judaism and Christianity co-exist?

Such questions pressed on believers after last year's terrorist attacks, then faded over time.

Wednesday, as they packed the sanctuary of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, carried candles down Yorba Linda Boulevard and prayed by the sea for Sept. 11 victims, thousands of worshipers throughout Orange County searched for answers all over again.

"Why? Why would God allow this?" said Pastor John McFarland, looking to the ceiling of his United Methodist Church in Fountain Valley shortly after a predawn memorial service. "We think God's love protects us from tragedy. But it's really with us through the tragedy."

Thirty-five of McFarland's sleepy-eyed worshipers were among the first in Orange County to turn their prayers to the attacks that shook the nation, and their faith. They gathered in an unadorned church hall at 5:45 a.m. PDT, exactly one year after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Hours later, 3,000 bowed their heads in Saddleback's cavernous worship hall at noon. Bells rang out before more than 400 at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

As the sun set, nearly 1,000 Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha'is, Mormons, Jews and evangelical Christians packed the amphitheater at Lake Rancho Santa Margarita to pray, sing and light candles in the gathering gloom.

At times overcome with tears or stilled to silence, worshipers were conflicted about the attacks' effect on their relationship to God. Yes, their belief is stronger. But they remain haunted by doubt and regret.

The fall of the World Trade Center reminded McFarland in Fountain Valley that "the name of the Lord is a strong tower" more solid than any human building, he said.

But questions gnawed. "How do you love your enemy?" he asked of America's military response to the attacks. Should we be pointing fingers at our attackers when our nation's penchant for "worshiping money" appears less than Christian?

McFarland said parishioners responded angrily when he suggested last year that the World Trade Center was a symbol of money worship. He backed off the theme, but said he now regrets not being bold enough to press it.

Sitting by herself on the misty cliffs above Huntington Beach, Cathy Cavener of Duarte had a different question: What can a 51-year-old on disability do to act out her faith in the face of crisis?

Cavener said she awoke Wednesday with an answer: Pray for survivors. She hopped in her car and drove where there was "no phone or TV or e-mail" to distract her.

Recently, she also joined a program on the Internet that sends her the president's monthly itinerary so she can pray for his guidance of the nation. "I'm thinking of what a loss (the attacks) were and how terrifying it is for us, but knowing God is in control," she said.

By noon, an audience of 100 professors, students and staff were gathering for an interfaith service at the Chapman University Rose Garden. Jews, Muslims and Christians preached tolerance but said the attacks ended illusions that faith merely comforts.

"If God were reaching down with cosmic hands and plucking people to safety every time there was a fire or tornado ... then faith would be easy," said Sara Goldshlack, a Chapman junior. "If we thought faith was easy, that belief was shaken on Sept. 11."

Sophomore Sharaf Mowjood, who capped his comments with a prayer in Arabic, said images of the attacks left him feeling as he did the day his father died of a heart attack: alone. "Allah is testing you," Mowjood recalled his grandmother telling him.

At the Saddleback service, Gina Ireland of Rancho Santa Margarita said the attacks drove her to church. "I started thinking about God more," she said. "I feel like there's a purpose for (the attacks). We may not find out now, but later."

But Cynthia Hammork of Trabuco Canyon, also at Saddleback, said she struggled to answer her kids' questions: Did attack victims go to heaven? Why did the terrorists do it? "I said they have a different God, teaching them something different than what we believe," Hammork said.

At the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, where he is director, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi recoiled at any implication that Islamic teaching condones terrorist acts.

Muslims, long accustomed to horrific attacks that force them to question God's role in human affairs, faced a different challenge after Sept. 11, Siddiqi said: convincing members of other faiths that Islam does not sanction violence and that the terrorists "absolutely did not represent Islam."

In the past year, worshippers raised money for attack victims, donated blood and went to "churches, synagogues and temples to express our solidarity with every faith," Siddiqi said.

For Isabel Madrigal, a 30-year-old Mexican immigrant, a long day of remembrance ended with an evening ecumenical service at Santa Ana's First Baptist Church.

"Even though I'm not from this country, (the attacks) affected me because I live here now," Madrigal said, her 4-year-old daughter, Itzel in tow.

Contemplating a sanctuary hung with American flags and packed with 600 worshippers, Madrigal said: "Where there are two or three, there is Jesus. The more praying, the more strength we have."


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