25 years ago, a prayer service gave hope to a shaken America

OKLAHOMA CITY — Search-and-rescue workers came straight from the blast site, hard hats atop their heads and mud and grime on their boots.

Relatives of the missing joined loved ones of those already confirmed dead in holding teddy bears and wiping tears as this grieving heartland city — indeed, an entire shaken nation — came together to pray.

On a somber Sunday 25 years ago, the late Rev. Billy Graham shook off the flu to try and explain how a loving God could have allowed the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to occur.

But Graham — America’s pastor-in-chief — had no answer.

“I appreciated him saying, ‘I don’t know why,’ that this was something we were not going to understand,” said Lynne Gist, whose sister, Karen Gist Carr, 32, was among the 168 dead in what remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

The April 23, 1995, prayer service began the healing process for this Bible Belt state and millions of TV viewers around the world.

“It was a time when it didn’t matter if you were red or blue, Republican or Democrat,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. “We were just Americans, and we came together and leaned on our faith as one of the first steps to get over this, and I don’t think we have ever looked back.”

Four days before, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh parked a yellow Ryder rental truck filled with 5,000 pounds of explosives outside the nine-story building downtown and got into a getaway car. The timed fuse ignited at 9:02 a.m.

McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols would be convicted in the bombing. McVeigh was executed in 2001. Nichols remains behind bars, serving a life sentence at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

Plans for a prayer service came together quickly. It started with Cathy Keating, wife of then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican inaugurated just a few months earlier.

In a talk with a friend the night of the bombing, the first lady expressed how helpless she felt. She wondered what, if anything, she could do.

The friend asked Keating what she would have done in the past, if something tragic had happened in her personal life.

“Well, we’d have a prayer vigil,” replied Keating, who — like her husband — is Roman Catholic.

When the weary governor returned home that night after a long day of chaos, he heard women’s voices.

Their chatter on such a devastating day frustrated him.

“So I went upstairs, and I said, ‘What’s going on here?’” recalled Frank Keating, Oklahoma’s top elected official from 1995 to 2003. “It’s like, ‘Don’t you realize we’re in a huge, tragic, horrifying, shattering experience?’

“And Cathy looked up at me — this is no lie — and she said, ‘We are planning a memorial service, a prayer service, at the fairgrounds. And you can leave.’”

And so it happened. Roughly 20,000 people — including relatives carrying photos of family members still missing in the rubble — filled Oklahoma City’s State Fair Arena and nearby overflow spaces.

Florists donated thousands of red and yellow single-stem roses for the attendees. Brenda Edgar, wife of then-Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, sent hundreds of teddy bears — and then hundreds more at Cathy Keating’s last-minute request.

President Bill Clinton and many others wore multicolored ribbons: white for the dead, yellow for the missing, purple for the children and blue for the state of Oklahoma.

Clinton, a Democrat who drew only 34 percent of the 1992 popular vote in the conservative Sooner State, flew from Washington. He got a standing ovation.

“If anybody thinks that Americans are mostly mean and selfish, they ought to come to Oklahoma,” said Clinton, who was joined by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. “If anybody thinks Americans have lost the capacity for love and care and courage, they ought to come to Oklahoma.”

Graham, who died Feb. 21, 2018, at the age of 99, told the crowd the bombing “was like a violent explosion ripping at the bare heart of America, and long after the rubble is cleared and the rebuilding begins, the scars of this senseless and evil outrage will remain.”

“I’ve been asked why God allows it,” he said during his sermon. “I don’t know. I can’t give a direct answer. I have to confess that I never fully understand, even for my own satisfaction. I have to accept that God is a God of love and mercy and compassion even in the midst of suffering.”

Cathy Keating’s voice cracked as she stood on the fairgrounds arena stage, awash in carnations, lilies and tulips, and reflected on the innocence — and lives — lost by the state’s children. Although the final count was unknown at the time, 19 children died in the bombing, many of them inside the second-floor America’s Kids day-care center.

“It is a terrible crime to steal a child’s trust in the goodness of humanity,” the governor’s wife told the crowd. “We have to hold our children close through the nightmares to come. We have to teach them that evil is not the norm. And we begin that process today.”

Ever since, annual ceremonies on the bombing’s anniversary have emphasized faith and prayers.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the temporary closing of the museum and will require a prerecorded video observance of the 25th anniversary, said Watkins, the memorial’s director.

Still, she said it’s fitting that the milestone date falls on a Sunday.

The taped rite will feature a spiritual message from Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

“We have used our faith in this 25-year journey to recover and to heal and to move forward,” Watkins said. “And that prayer service was the catalyst and set a standard for how we would remember and how we would lean into our faith in the darkest times.”

By Kerry Minor

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