An estimated 1,500 people came to Nashville’s Centennial Park Wednesday (Sept. 12) to mourn the terrorist attacks carried out against America the day before. In spite of the evident provocation for anger and grief, the crowd was remarkably quiet and subdued. Even the young children attending seemed to catch the seriousness of the moment and stayed close to their parents.
Instead of mingling, most of the people sat on the park lawn in clusters throughout the observance. Some wore white ribbons on badges that read “God Bless America.” Others carried small American flags. A handful of young people circulated through the crowd and handed out invitations to the Church of Scientology.
Appearing at the ceremonies were country singers Martina McBride , Phil Vassar , Kenny Chesney , Jo Dee Messina and Shannon Brown; Christian artists Michael W. Smith, the Katinas and Leigh Nash (of Six Pence None The Richer); Dr. Jerry Sutton, pastor of Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist Church; Nashville mayor Bill Purcell; Bishop Edward Kmiec; and Dr. Warren Thompson, director of clinical psychology for Nashville Metro Schools.
The gathering was basically a Christian religious rally, with most of the speakers extolling the power of prayer. There were no Jewish or Muslim clerics in evidence.
Spearheading the 6 to 7 p.m. event were Nashville’s Clear Channel radio stations. Each station was represented by a disc jockey who spoke briefly and then introduced the main speakers and entertainers.
WSIX-FM’s Gerry House opened the program by citing a news item about two people who held hands as they leaped to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center. House used the incident as a metaphor for the abiding comfort of human affection. He noted that, at the last moment, the couple’s race, religion, economic status or gender didn’t matter —- just the fact that in this greatest adversity they reached out for each other. “They were just two human beings -— citizens of Planet Earth,” he said, “and that’s all we need to know.”
McBride then came on stage to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. “Sometimes emotions in times like these are best expressed in music,” she said, breaking into the chorus of her most famous hit, “Independence Day.” While the song is about domestic violence, the chorus seemed curiously applicable to the tragedy at hand with its lines, “Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing/Let the whole world know that today is the day of reckoning.” This was as close to combativeness and retribution as the program got. McBride ended her set with a stratospheric rendering of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“What happened yesterday read like the opening chapters of a Tom Clancy novel, but it was real and it was final,” said Dr. Sutton, alluding to the coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “We, as a nation, need a discerning heart. We need to know not only what happened but why it happened,” he continued before leading the crowd in a prayer.
Mayor Purcell invoked the spirit of Winston Churchill, England’s embattled prime minister during World War II. He quoted from Churchill’s June 1940 speech to the House of Commons: “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”
Referring to both the military and ideological struggles that may lie ahead for America, Smith said, “I think we’re at war —- and more than one war.” He asked the crowd to pray for President George Bush, calling him “a godly man.” Then, with backing vocals from the Katinas, Smith closed his segment by singing “Hold Me Close to You.”
“It was absolutely terrible, criminal, unthinkable,” said Bishop Kmiec of America’s day of terrorism. “Even far away, we are victims. We’re traumatized. It’s good for us to come together [in response to] the unmerited evil done to our nation.” He, too, offered a prayer.
Speaking to the children in the audience, Dr. Thompson said, “Kids, your folks are here because they want you to live without fear.” He spoke of the nation’s “loss of peace,” adding, “When we lose something, we try to get it back. … We need to have faith in ourselves. We have a great track record of solving problems.” He also quoted Churchill and pointed out that in Germany’s unrelenting attacks on London, “[Churchill] had the World Trade Center bombing every night.” Thompson recommended the spirit shown by his wife, who died six years ago of cancer. She wrote in her journal, he said, “Life is so wonderful, how can I not be excited by each new day?”
For the finale, McBride, Smith and the Katinas returned to the stage and were joined by Brown, Vassar, Nash, Messina and Chesney to lead the mourners in “Amazing Grace.”
>Phil Vassar and Kenny Chesney share their thoughts on the tragedy with CMT in this audioclip.