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Saturday, 20 October, 2001, 05:27 GMT 06:27 UK
New Yorkers offered spirituality
Prayer station in New York
People have come from across the US to comfort grieving New Yorkers
Joseph Winter

Evangelical Christian groups from across the United States have come to New York in the hope that a new spirituality will rise up from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

The streets around Ground Zero are full of earnest young men and women, looking for converts and offering to pray for passers-by.

Many of the pamphlets they distribute have pictures of the Twin Towers, either still standing or the wreckage - a sure way to arouse at least some initial interest.

Inevitably, some documents seize on the tragedy as a sign that "the end of the world is nigh".

"Prayer stations" adorned with red and white banners and piles of paperback Bibles have been set up opposite gaps between the remaining skyscrapers, through which a few tangled remnants of the World Trade Center can be glimpsed.

Passerby speaking to evangelist
Some found the blessings on offer at the 'prayer station' helpful
And while many busy Wall Street financiers do not give the "prayer stations" a second glance, some do stop and have a chat or even exchange blessings with the out-of-towners.

The US has always been a country where religion is taken seriously and now more than ever.

Dave Brown was sent by the School Of Evangelism in Arkansas to preach to New Yorkers.

He told BBC News Online that the suicide attacks had made all Americans feel less secure.

"Prayer doesn't protect us from harm but it does offer some comfort," he said.

But it hasn't all been peace and love.

The only difference between hell and New York is one of them is surrounded by water

He said that one woman had shouted at him, saying: 'The people who did this are praying, too'.

"But I know she wasn't angry with us, just the situation, so I didn't take it personally," he said.

While Mr Brown had come intending to convert New Yorkers, when he said to a colleague "I'll see you later to break bread or maybe pizza" it seemed that the reverse might have occurred.

Some of the evangelists think they have come to save a sinful city.

"The only difference between hell and New York is one of them is surrounded by water," one man told the New York Times.

Michele Feathers from the First Bible Baptist Church in Rochester, 400 miles north-west of Manhattan, said that she was handing out 1,000 pamphlets a day from a suitcase which she carried around.

Unusual evangelist approach
Michele Feathers tries to convert New Yorkers through a gas mask
She obviously had her misgivings about coming to New York City and was wearing a face mask to protect herself against all the dust still swirling around Ground Zero.

While these evangelists are receiving a mixed response from traditionally cynical New Yorkers, mainstream churches and synagogues are reporting higher attendances since 11 September.

"People are searching, they don't know what to do," said Rabbi Steven Dworken from the Rabbinical Council of America.

He said that after more than five weeks, he still says a special prayer at every service for the families of the victims and the missing.

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York said there had been "a large increase" in attendance at the city's main Saint Patrick's Cathedral, although she could not give exact figures.

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor says the attendance at his Manhattan synagogue had increased by between 10 and 20%.

'New vulnerability'

"We're seeing lots of new people but some of our regulars are still nervous about leaving their homes. They have adopted a bunker mentality," he said.

Reverend Leonard Buxton has come out of retirement to offer special afternoon counselling sessions at the John Street United Methodist Church in the heart of the financial district because "there's a new feeling of vulnerability around".

He told BBC News Online that in the past week, the number of people seeking his help had fallen sharply.

Reverend Buxton believes that New Yorkers are trying to get on with their normal lives but he is not going home just yet.

"It might hit them again over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays," he said.

Rabbi Dworken said that it is difficult for many people to move on for two reasons.

Mourning process

Firstly, the anthrax fears and the war in Afghanistan are constant reminders of the suicide attacks.

Secondly, burying the body is an important part of the grieving process and only around 400 bodies have so far been recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Around 4,500 people are still officially listed as "missing".

Until those families have a grave to mourn at, they will not have closure, he said.

"So they will continue to feel helpless and the desire to feel more spirituality."

See also:

11 Oct 01 | Americas
New York: A tale of two cities
10 Oct 01 | Americas
New York seeks $54bn to rebuild
07 Jan 00 | States
New York
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