A lone possum crept along the entryway of Church of the Ascension as Friday night turned into Saturday morning. It was the possum hour, just shy of midnight, but a faint light filtered out through the stained glass windows of the tiny Episcopal house of worship in Silver Spring.
The hand-painted sign facing drivers on Sligo Avenue summed it up succinctly:
Pray for Peace
"I hope it catches a lot of people's eyes," Wardell Townsend said of the sign he and fellow parishioner Dick Marks had made. Both were inside the church, a building that looks as if it were plucked from the English countryside and set down not far from Renzo's Bar & Grill, a neighborhood tavern.
For some area congregations, the U.S.-led war in Iraq has meant the return of something not seen in decades: a church that never locks its doors. As bombs started falling Wednesday night, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington made the decision to keep at least a half-dozen of its churches open 24 hours a day. Some other faiths' houses of worship are also open around the clock, including Holy Trinity, a Roman Catholic church in Georgetown.
Ted Johnson, Ascension's interim rector, set up a roster so there would always be at least one person in the sanctuary. Marks, 60, of Silver Spring, did the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift starting Thursday, stealing some shut-eye on an inflatable bed he set up near the baptismal font. (Townsend, 50, brought a radio to listen to the Maryland basketball game; at least one prayer would be answered that night.) So far, only church members have stopped by, said Johnson, 58, but he's hoping that strangers will be moved to stop and pray awhile.
That's also the hope of Karla Woggon, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in College Park. Her church, next door to the University of Maryland campus, has gone to a 24-hour schedule. "I thought if [students] saw an open door, they might feel it was a place they could go in," she said. "This might be a time they're feeling lonely and isolated."
Woggon, 36, grew up in Asheville, N.C., where at the end of her street in that mountain town was a neighborhood church that never closed. "I would go in and light a candle and sit and pray for a while," she remembered. "Sometimes I'd sit and talk with friends. . . . When I was troubled, it was a safe place I could go and feel some comfort."
Churches today have suffered too many late-night acts of theft and vandalism to stay open unattended.
At Ascension, the handful of parishioners talked about why, if prayer is something that can be done at any time in any place, they found appeal in settling into dark wooden pews in the company of others. "We're creatures of ritual, and there's such a thing as ritual space, sacred space, space that is sanctified by a practice of everyone coming together to focus their energy on immaterial ends," Johnson said.
David Todd of Silver Spring said the experience reminded him of two days he spent at a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky. The monks rose at 3 a.m. for the first service.
"I will never forget how eerie it was waking to the sound of the monastery bell, getting up when it's completely pitch dark," said Todd, 44. He walked into a service lit entirely by candles, echoing with the sound of 200 men chanting the psalms. "I remember being hit with the feeling that for all I know, these guys are holding the world together."
Elena Larsen, 36, of Takoma Park also hoped that in some small way her late-night prayer could make a difference in a war 6,000 miles away. "I have a little boy, and a girl coming, and I'm very worried about what kind of world they'll be in," she said. "I'm hoping for a better world. I don't know who else to put my trust in to ask for one."
At 12:30 a.m., Johnson finished leading Larsen, Todd and the others in the Compline, the service that traditionally marks the end of the day: "Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep."
The lights were still on at Ascension.
A list of the Episcopal churches open all day or with extended hours is at www.edow.org/news/24hourministry.htm.