Dozens gather in Bel Air to observe National Day of Prayer

About 100 express gratitude for freedom to worship openly

May 05, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare | Baltimore Sun reporter

A crowd gathered quietly before the courthouse in downtown Bel Air on Thursday. While traffic traveled steadily along Main Street and many left their offices for various lunchtime destinations, this group spent the noon hour in prayer.

"It is a privilege and honor to pray," said Dawn Massimini of Forest Hill. "I am so thankful that I have the freedom to pray publicly without fear of persecution."

The Harford County town, like thousands of communities across Maryland and the nation, marked the 60th annual National Day of Prayer with petitions for the country's welfare and words of gratitude for the freedom to worship openly.

"We are a nation established with religious freedom," said the Rev. Craig McLaughlin of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air. "Many escaped oppression and came here for that freedom."

In the wake of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden this week, many in the group prayed for the country's security.

"There are more dangerous times ahead for us as a nation," said Bernadette Zgorski, who had been excused from jury duty in time to join the service. "We need divine protection."

Bishop Harry Jackson, state coordinator for the day's events and spiritual leader of Hope Christian Church in Washington, D.C., planned to offer prayers on the steps of the Capitol.

"Underlying everything we do today is a thankfulness that we can publicly participate in prayer," said Jackson. "No one can say to us, ‘You guys be quiet' as we exercise this freedom."

A legal challenge to the event, which national organizers expected to draw about 1.4 million people, failed last month when a federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and dismissed a lawsuit that contended that the day is unconstitutional.

"The court's unanimous decision is a big victory for the free exercise of religion, a freedom that is deeply entrenched in our culture and heritage," said Michael Calhoun, director of communications for the National Day of Prayer organization, which has headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. "There will always be opposition, but that is not our concern. Our greatest concern is the Heavenly Father we acknowledge in prayer."

The National Day of Prayer was created by congressional resolution in 1952 and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. The event has no government funding and organizing is left to private groups. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., challenged the government's role in establishing such an observance. The appeals court ruled last month that the foundation was not harmed by the presidential proclamation and had, therefore, no standing to challenge it.

"This day is a time for different denominations to come together outside of their own walls and pray with one accord," said Alvin Clarkson, a retired police chaplain, who was set to lead a noon service at Baltimore's City Hall.

In Bel Air, the service began with "America the Beautiful" and ended with the national anthem. It included scriptural readings, silent petitions and familiar hymns that frequently moved those in the crowd to join hands or raise their outstretched palms.

"This is like patriotism and spiritual work combined," said Cathy Lippa of Bel Air.

The openness and unity of the event send a powerful message, said Dale Davis of Street, who noted how many passers-by joined the group, which grew to nearly 100 participants.

"I believe in this day," said Dennis Durham of Bel Air. "God gave us this nation and our founders were true believers. Here we have freedom, but we must realize it is freedom to do good."

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