A city unites to pray, grieve Event links Atlantans, visitors and athletes in mission of hope

July 28, 1996|By Jean Marbella and Peter Schmuck | Jean Marbella and Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Some went, as Southerners traditionally have gone in times of crisis, to church. Others sought out their neighbors where they've always found them, on their front porches, at the weekend breakfast spot or in the local watering hole. Even the out-of-towners were compelled to gather, at the sporting events that had drawn them here in the first place.

No one wanted to face yesterday alone, not after the early morning bombing at Centennial Olympic Park that ripped a hole through the midpoint of the Summer Olympics. And so, this city that for all its legendary racial and political differences has united when it needed to, came together to confront the demon in its midst.

"We will stand together, black and white. We will use this to draw us together," the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery thundered from his former pulpit at Central United Methodist Church, where he was pastor for 18 years before devoting himself full-time to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

A racially mixed group that included former Mayor Andrew Young answered his call to a hastily organized prayer service at the church, which stands in the shadow of the Georgia Dome, site of several Olympic events. They sang old spirituals, read from the Bible and compared the need to unite against the terrorist bombing to the solidarity that brought about civil rights.

Young, who played a crucial role in bringing the Games to his city, also spoke.

"Let's not let anything turn us around," Young, said, invoking the civil rights anthem.

'The peace we all seek'

Sleepy-eyed, like many whose day began with the news of the bombing at 1: 25 a.m., Young said he drew strength from attending the service.

"These are the saints of Atlanta," Young said after the service. "I came to them for inspiration to carry on." During the service, Young offered a prayer for all the officials, staff, volunteers and "even our corporate sponsors."

White ministers came from their own churches to this one, located in the west downtown area that is home to five historically black colleges, including Morehouse and Spellman.

"We pray for the Olympics that have been venues of hope for us," the Rev. Joanna Adams, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian told the some 60 persons seated in the small, simple church, "and the peace we all seek and the sign that it is possible."

Determined to continue

And the Games went on, as officials of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) said there was never any suggestion that the competition stop.

"Not a person," said A. D. Frazier, chief executive officer of ACOG. "I have never seen a group come together and unify with as much sense of purpose as our staff. It was unbelievable."

Fans gathered as well, with attendance for several events higher than on Friday, which would have been predictable if it had been a normal Saturday. Olympic Stadium was filled to near-capacity for the second day of track and field, but many seats were empty after a steady rain drenched the crowd in the morning session.

"My initial reaction when I woke up this morning was that I was fearful of bringing my children down here," said Patty Butler of Atlanta, who attended last night's track and field session with her husband and two daughters. "Then, when my head cleared, I thought, 'That's what the person who did this probably would want.' I feel safe. Security is tight. The Games should go on."

Additional precautions

Some of the athletes were understandably skittish after waking up to the frightening headlines. U.S. basketball player Karl Malone sent his family home yesterday, and at least two $H American swimmers, Janet Evans and Gary Hall, left the Olympic Village yesterday, but they may have checked into Atlanta hotels. Frazier said that some athletes are leaving on schedule because several events -- most notably the seven-day swimming competition -- have come to an end.

Baltimore's Olympian, 15-year-old Beth Botsford, had planned to stay until next Sunday's closing ceremonies. But Botsford's mother, Elaine, said they decided to leave for Baltimore today because U.S. Swimming officials have given the younger swimmers earlier curfews and more restrictions on coming and going in the Olympic Village.

"Beth really hasn't been home in a month, and because of the new curfew restrictions, she'd rather be home with her friends," Elaine Botsford said last night. She and Beth, who won two gold medals, plan to return over the weekend for the closing $l ceremonies.

'Bad guys in the world'

At least one athlete took the news of the explosion in stride.

Army officer Glenn Dubis, who competed yesterday in the Olympic rifle competition, said the bombing had little effect on his preparation or his performance, but he is more used to that sort of thing than the typical Olympian. He was an infantry officer in the Persian Gulf war.

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