SALISBURY — Leading the prayer from the stage at the Bell Tower Green Amphitheater, Lara Musser Gritter’s eyes drifted over the outstretched arms and twinkling lights covering the park lawn.
“It was really beautiful to look outside and see all those candles burning, hundreds of them burning, in unity and prayer,” said Musser Gritter, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
A few hundred people of various faiths gathered in Bell Tower Green on Monday evening for a prayer vigil organized by local churches. The idea for the vigil began with a simple email chain between inner-city church pastors late last week.
“When we first had email exchanges, we just thought we would be a handful of us gathered here on the grass,” said Reverend Mark Conforti of First United Methodist Church.
As more people found out about the vigil through social media or their Sunday morning church service, the number of people coming to the rally began to increase.
“There was an outpouring of support that was garnered over the weekend,” Conforti said.
Veronika Poliakova, a sophomore tennis player at Catawba College whose family lives near Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, stood in front of the crowd with a bouquet of sunflowers in the crook of her arm. Poliakova was joined by a Ukrainian friend who attends college in South Carolina and traveled to the event.
“I’m so grateful to be here and to have met so many amazing people who support and pray for my country,” Poliakova said.
Poliakova was stunned by the outpouring of community support.
“I didn’t expect a lot of people to come,” Poliakova said. “It looks like the whole Salisbury community came.”
People followed as more than a handful of pastors quoted scripture and led a prayer litany.
Jim Stringfield, who attends First Baptist Church, prayed while cradling a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag over his shoulder. Stringfield, his wife and several members of their church visited the town of Munkacs in western Ukraine in 2011 on a mission trip. During the stay, they guided the children through Bible school lessons and taught science experiments. To commemorate the trip, Stringfield and the church purchased the flag he carried more than ten years later at the vigil.
Stringfield thought about the country he visited and the war he is currently fighting.
“When the Berlin Wall came down, we thought it was all over,” Stringfield said. “I never imagined that the Russians would be on the march again. It really is good versus evil. It’s very clear.
He also thought of his own country.
“I’m so grateful to be an American,” Stringfield said. “To have freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. My father and his people and their generation fought for our freedom, fought for our freedom and we tend to take it for granted.
As the sun began to dip below the horizon, attendees held their candles aloft and prayed. A moment of prolonged silence was accentuated at the end by the bell ringing before everyone recited the Lord’s Prayer. Musser Gritter ended the vigil with words of encouragement.
“Remember, we seek God not as individuals, but as a community of faith knowing that God listens to the prayers of God’s people here and in Ukraine and beyond,” Musser Gritter said. “Friends tonight, may you go in peace to love and serve the Lord knowing that the peace of Christ passes all understanding. Amen.”
As people lingered on the green talking among themselves, the wall of water bathed the park in a blue and yellow glow.
Musser Gritter hopes the vigil will have a lasting impact in more ways than one.
“I have two hopes. First, I really hope that our prayers will be answered and that God will intervene in a way beyond our understanding to bring peace and security to Ukrainians,” Musser Gritter said. “Secondly, I hope this is the first of many times we have come together ecumenically on the Bell Tower Green for prayer and worship.”