A crowd assembled outside the Fort Mill Town Hall Thursday just after noon. More than 100 people were there, from young ladies pushing strollers with babies to two old guys in wheelchairs – and all ages in between.
But the event was far more important than any council meeting or anything any politician would ever say in that town hall.
Thursday, in the public square of downtown Fort Mill, people came together to pray.
There was not a single prayer against anybody or anything. No using the Bible or any other holy book to claim one sect or denomination is better than any other. Just people, some of whom held hands with strangers, united to pray for community and country.
A lady named Marian Woodson brought a folding chair, and she came early, just to sit in the front row.
“A community prays together,” Woodson said.
In Fort Mill Thursday, just like in big cities and small towns and street corners across America, people stopped and observed the National Day of Prayer. Started in 1952 when President Harry S Truman signed the day into law, and since 1988 observed on the first Thursday in May, the day of prayer is meant to bring people together to prove that the Constitution’s First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of religion still means something.
Diane Burkholder of Fort Mill helps organize the local event each year. It brings together Baptists and Methodists, Presbyterians and everybody else. There is no right way. There is just togetherness.
In Fort Mill one of the legendary spiritual leaders for the past 35 years has been the Rev M.N. Baxter from Jerusalem Baptist Church. His church feeds the hungry, assists the poor and broke and homeless. So on Thursday, Baxter prayed for the business community to flourish because commerce that does well provides jobs to people and opportunities for families.
Baxter’s prayer was for people to have work, and dignity.
The Baptist preachers and the Church of God preachers stood together as people who can and should help a town and nation. Baptists Tom Tucker and Gene Flack and Carwell Culp prayed for revival and education and family, and Church of God pastor David Kemp prayed for a media that would be decent. There was no talk of who should go to what church. There was talk, though, of words that are universal in prayers: Humility, generosity, love. Be a good neighbor.
A pastor from Carolinas Cornerstone Church in Fort Mill named Tom Halcom spoke about seeing the soldiers come back from the blood and guts of World War II when he was a kid. He talked about some soldiers who did not come home from that war because they were dead. Communities prayed together in those old days, he said.
“We can get back to that and we should,” Halcom said.
Barbara Lunow from Fort Mill Church of the Nazarene prayed for the military. As she prayed, a siren started to wail in the distance. The real world, cops and an ambulance and maybe a fire truck, intervening on prayers. The sirens came closer. Nobody stopped praying. The sirens went past on the next block. A guy wearing an 82nd Airborne veterans cap limped past Lunow saying her prayer. He was leaning on a cane. He looked for a chair. Somebody brought him one. The disabled veteran named John Smiley under that cap then sat and bowed his head.
“Amen,” he said as all eyes were on his hat, and his limp, and his sacrifice. A woman across the way said out loud toward Smiley, “Thank you for your service.”
Smiley wiped tears and prayed some more.
This crowd of people that came mainly as strangers were, after just a few minutes, strangers no more. They were praying together as thousands in Americans were doing at the same time. A pastor from Chariots of Fire church named Edwin Johnson – he brought a portable public address system, and even a portable pulpit – followed no script except his heart, unleashing a torrent of words to remind people of the similarities of Americans, not the differences. Johnson was on the program for a minute or two. He spoke for more than 10 minutes in prayer and the audience loved every minute of it.
The Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the town’s high flagpole by the crowd. Every person had their hand over a heart. There were whites and blacks and Hispanics and Asians. The words, “one Nation, under God, indivisible” were the loudest of all.