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Churches Help Spur Revival of Oklahoma City After Bombing

AS Thanksgiving approaches, residents of Oklahoma City are marking the six-month anniversary of the terrorist bombing that ripped apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and ravaged the city's downtown.

Many wondered, then, whether the city's historic downtown churches, some of which were heavily damaged, could ever be repaired.

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In this young and deeply religious city, churches play a central role in history and habitability - and have now become a symbol of the community's effort to rebuild.

''If the churches desert downtown like they are doing all over the country, we are going to surrender our downtown areas to the drug dealers,'' says Nick Harris, senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church. ''We [believe] the church is a vibrant part of any inner-city recovery, and we are not leaving.''

Indeed, the process of restoring the city's churches has tested the pluck of this proud community. First United Methodist, for example, is one of the city's oldest structures, dating back to the first day of the Oklahoma Land Rush. Some of its pews were carved by Civil War veterans.

The church, which stands directly across the street from the Murrah federal building, lost most of its stained glass in the explosion, and cracks in its foundation left it unfit for worship.

Although the congregation will have to wait another six months before the church will be fully restored, First United Methodist not only plans to repair the bomb damage, but to expand. It has received almost $250,000 for that purpose from local Jewish, Muslim, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic organizations, among others.

''There is a unity here,'' Pastor Harris says. ''Something about this frontier spirit that says if we don't hang together, were going to hang separately.''

Another damaged church, Cavalry Baptist, is also a civic treasure. Founded in 1890, its primarily African-American congregation boasts a rich history of quiet protest against Jim Crow laws. In the 1950s, a young Martin Luther King Jr. once auditioned for its pastorship.

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After the blast, Cavalry Baptist lost most of its stained glass and suffered major structural damage. The repair bill could reach $600,000 - a tab that will be paid, in part, by donations from the same ecumenical coalition.

''This bombing has produced some lasting relationships,'' says Phil Davis, associate pastor at Cavalry Baptist. ''Tragedy sometimes causes people to focus a little bit more and to reevaluate.''

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