From our Sept. 28, 2001 issue
Hours after terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York City stunned the nation on Sept. 11, Holston Conference churches rushed to accommodate thousands who needed to pray, give blood or share their grief.
Cokesbury UMC in Knoxville recorded a worship attendance of 2,794 on Sunday, Sept. 16, up from 1,400 during the summer months. Christ UMC in Chattanooga welcomed about 2,200 in worship, up from 1,300 the previous Sunday.
The day after the attacks, Washington Pike UMC in Knoxville opened its gym at 3 p.m. for a blood drive that had been scheduled weeks before. By midnight, 250 people had donated; another 100 left or were turned away after waiting in long lines.
Ministers quickly prepared services on the weeknights following the tragedy and at noon on Friday, Sept. 14, a day designated for prayer and remembrance by President Bush.
At First UMC in Maryville, participants in a midday service sobbed as the Rev. Darris Doyal and the Rev. Richard Richter read handwritten prayers left at the altar over the past week.
"God, heal our land," read one visitor's prayer. "Comfort the people who are so in pain this day. Help us learn to forgive."
In one of many interfaith services throughout the conference, leaders of First Oak Ridge and Kern Memorial United Methodist churches participated in an outdoor service attended by hundreds at Oak Ridge Civic Center.
"Let us be bound by the things that unite us," the Rev. Annette Flynn of Kern Memorial said during an emotional prayer.
Like many churches in Holston and throughout the nation, Church Street UMC in Knoxville kept its doors open for days, accommodating downtown business people or other visitors seeking a quiet place to kneel.
A Hilton Hotel guest, stranded in Knoxville after his Washington-bound plane had been diverted to McGhee-Tyson airport, wandered in one night at 8:30.
"Can I really find a place to pray here?" he asked Mae Swanner and Teresa Williams, who were attending a circle meeting at the church. A sign outside the building, "Our church is open for prayer," had drawn him in.
As Williams led him to the prayer room, he said his father had been identified among the dead at the Pentagon crash. "I showed him the room, flipped on the light, asked if he was okay. He said he was fine," Williams said. "He hugged me and said he didn't know what he would have done if this church hadn't been open."
During the denomination's "Open House Month," when United Methodist churches are being promoted with TV commercials and other Igniting Ministry ads, members marvel at the campaign's timing. In addition to creating radio spots with the message, "God is still the power in whom we place our faith, and the power of love overcomes evil," United Methodist Communications also changed the narration of one of its TV ads. The new narration suggests that viewers "consider the strength of gathering in a community" and "hold prayer vigils with United Methodists in local churches around the world."
"I saw the commercial last night," said the Rev. Steve Sallee, senior pastor at Cokesbury UMC. "What they did to relate the commercial to the crisis is excellent. It shows that we are ready to stand and help people through this. It behooves all of us to be ready."
Sallee and Cokesbury Associate Pastor Rev. Stephen DeFur were among Holston leaders and churches appearing in the media since the terrorist attacks. Knoxville TV stations sought out Cokesbury UMC for at least five local stories, while The Elizabethton Star, Southwest Virginia Enterprise, and other papers quoted other Holston ministers' words of faith.
Portions of a statement by Bishop Ray Chamberlain, released within four hours after the attacks, appeared in several media outlets. (See statement.) Throughout the nation, prayer vigils, and packed worship services were front-page news as America turned to God for solace.
"It's funny that for so long, the church was so marginalized and invisible. Now all of a sudden, we're in the center of everything," said the Rev. Dennis Newman, Christ UMC, Chattanooga. "People are searching for something solid to hold on to. They're turning to the church. I hope we can give them something meaningful and in depth."