From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

When Two or More Gather

You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.

Mary Tyler Moore

Three days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, I was working in my home office, preparing for a speech I was slated to deliver. I struggled with how best to acknowledge the grief and shock of the recent tragedy, and still provide the content I was expected to present about positive perspective.

While I focused on this challenge, my mind occasionally turned to an e-mail I had received several times that morning and the previous evening, all from different people: “In an effort to demonstrate national unity, please stop for a minute at 7:00 P.M. on Friday, September 15th, and step outside your home or place of business and light a candle for peace.”

I was moved by the idea. Candles signify gathering and ritual—sometimes to celebrate a birthday or to welcome a guest, sometimes to offer a prayerful petition, sometimes to mark passage into the next life. I forwarded the e-mail to my daughters at their respective colleges and retrieved two candles for my husband and myself from the buffet and laid them on the kitchen counter. Then I went back and got two more, intending to ask the young couple who live next door to join us. They were expecting their first child soon, and it occurred to me that they might welcome the chance to focus on something positive and uplifting.

When I stopped for lunch and discovered yet another email about the candle lighting, I knew immediately that it should be more than just a private affair. It should be an opportunity for all our neighbors to gather together to share the grief and the disbelief, and to pray collectively for world peace. And it should provide a vehicle for all those who wanted to “do something” to help, so a basket for Red Cross donations seemed a good solution. I called my husband to bounce the idea off him.

“Let’s go for it,” came his unhesitating response. We both believed that there is great power and healing in group prayer.

Hastily printing flyers on my computer, I spent the next half-hour walking up and down our one-block-long street, distributing the invitation to gather in front of our home a little before 7:00 P.M. for candle lighting and nondenominational prayers for peace. We asked participants to bring candles, prayers, singing voices and, if they wished, a monetary donation. In an effort to avoid a somber or frightening tone for the many young children on the street, we noted on the flyer that everyone was to bring their best voices for a rousing “Three Cheers for America.” And we made red, white and blue clothing optional.

At 6:50 P.M., the sidewalk in front of our house was empty, and I speculated that the typically busy Friday nights of suburban families had conflicted with our service. A few moments later, I stepped out the door and glanced up and down the street. More than forty people were converging from both directions, most of them sporting some form of red, white and blue, many carrying small flags with their candles.

One of the first people I spotted was a retired gentleman making his way very slowly up the street with his cane, his gait slowed by recent surgery. His petite wife, her face a picture of kindness and concern, accompanied him. We hastily moved the program toward their home. Another of the early arrivals was our neighbor from across the street whose celebration of new citizenship we had attended a scant few months ago.

But what moved me most was the presence of my neighbor, three doors down, on the same side. She had not attended any neighborhood gatherings since the death of her son three years previously. She had graciously declined invitations, explaining that she “wasn’t ready.”

“I wasn’t sure if I could do this, but I really wanted to,” she explained to me quietly. “You know, Michael was a Marine, and the talk of military action makes me think of him.” She wore the sunglasses that so frequently hide the tears of a grieving heart.

“I’m so glad you came,” I whispered. “Stay close to me.” We stood shoulder to shoulder, holding hands during much of the service. I felt deeply privileged to witness both her courage and her wish to honor the memory of her son.

Our service was brief but meaningful. We welcomed our neighbors, said a prayer and petitions we had composed that afternoon, and asked for and received many spontaneous petitions. One woman brought a special prayer for our nation. We sang “God Bless America” and several other patriotic songs. When we finished with the songs we had planned, some of the older children led us in another. The “Three Cheers for America” generated great volume and enthusiasm, especially from the preschool participants. And the collection basket for the Red Cross brought a generous response.

I looked at the faces of my neighbors, awed by the power of the human connection that makes us feel a little more brave. I also knew in an instant that my message to audiences from this day forward would include service to others as a milestone on the path to perspective.

Maureen Murray

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on the American Red Cross, contact your local Red Cross chapter or visit their Web site: www.redcross.org.]

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