Bahai News - Southwest Florida churches swell with worshippers

The need to understand ; Southwest Florida churches swell with worshippers - many of them new faces - as residents seek togetherness in their grief and answers amid their anguish

As people gathered in houses of worship across Southwest Florida in recent days, united in grief over the world-rattling events that unfolded Sept. 11, they came not seeking comfort so much as understanding, and a grasp of what to do now.

The volume of phone calls to churches was staggering, both on the day of the attacks -- when four planes were crashed and thousands killed at the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon -- and in the days following.

St. Martha's Catholic Church in Sarasota reported that it extended its hours of operation for anyone wishing to pray, and that phone calls seeking information on special services or Mass times jammed the lines.

Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles Parish, a Catholic church in Bradenton, has experienced an influx of requests, as well.

"We have received innumerable phone calls from people requesting services and for the church to remain open -- especially from folks who work," said Barbara Workman, parish secretary. "Normally we would close at 4 p.m., but we have kept the chapel open, and there has been a steady stream of both phone calls and people since the attack."

"This was not a religious event so much as it was a search for authentic answers," said the Rev. Greg Frye of St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key.

"Visitors as well as parishioners found themselves alone in this area with a deep need to be a part of a group of people," he said.

Most churchgoers are searching for understanding and direction, according to the Rev. Joseph Diaz of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clearwater. "Many people just didn't know what to do next and were looking for comfort as well as direction," he said.

In some cases, special services incorporated traditions from other faiths, such as Islam, Bahai and Judaism, in an effort to share grief, healing and a deeper understanding of one another's religions.

"There is one God of all, but he has revealed himself to all people in various ways," said Diaz, who officiated at the interfaith service at Holy Trinity, which was attended by many nonmembers and visitors seeking to understand Islam.

"It was a time for us to honor each other's traditions and celebrate diversity," he added.

Many people chose to visit any house of worship that was available, open and holding services, regardless of religious preference.

Not surprisingly, church after church found attendance significantly increased with new faces last week, estimated at between 10 to 35 percent more than at services normally conducted this time of the year. The spike is a clear indication that people sought solace in churches directly because of the tragedy, since the migration by residents from the North and the Midwest has yet to begin.

St. Boniface experienced an estimated 30 to 35 percent surge in attendance, as did Winter Gardens Presbyterian Church in Port Charlotte.

"We are a new and smaller church, but this past Sunday we had 90 people," said Dr. Kathy Wiggins, the church's pastor.

"We usually have 70, and there were at least six people I had never seen," she said.

Wiggins said parishioners made comments like, "I found exactly what I was looking for" and "I really need help knowing how to respond."

At the Episcopalian Diocese of Southwest Florida, "We are just trying to keep all our doors open for people," said Jim DeLa, director of communications. The Very Rev. Edward D. Moretti of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Bradenton said that church participation was "absolutely up" this past weekend.

"Our people believe in God, and when there is a tragedy or trauma in our lives or country, the first person they turn to is God." He added, "People need to be comforted so that the healing can begin. They go hand-in-hand."

Diaz witnessed the same influx of worshippers.

"We've definitely seen an increase in attendance, not only by those who regularly participate but by new faces, as well."

Many churches chose to honor America by singing or playing patriotic songs.

"There was a greater attendance at the Masses. The church was packed," said the Very Rev. Fausto Stampiglia, S.A.C., of St. Martha's Catholic Church in Sarasota. His church played "Taps" to memorialize the victims of the attack, as well as "God Bless America."

"We truly felt to be one with our God of love and forgiveness, but also a God that urges us to resist and fight evil, telling us that 'blessed are they who fight for justice,'" he said.

©Copyright 2001, Sarasota Herald Tribune

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