'Wounded hearts' find solace at American church in West End

Expatriates
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The Independent Online

The middle-aged, pinstriped, grey-haired man's lip trembled as he signed the book of condolences in the doorway of the American Church in London.

"My best friend was there. I should have been best man at the wedding next week," he managed, before his feelings became too much.

His entry in the book was a message to his friend who had the misfortune to be in the World Trade Centre when it fell victim to the worst terrorist attack in history: "You're gone, we're here. We are still together," it read.

The man was one of a constant stream of visitors to the church, just off Tottenham Court Road in London, where people queued all day to leave messages of support and sympathy in the book.

Inside, a United States flag hung down next to the pulpit and at least 100 candles were lit to remember the dead. About two dozen people sat on the pews, some with heads in hands, trying to comprehend the catastrophe that had befallen their homeland.

The church was founded in 1969 to cater for the American expatriate community in London and much of its congregation works in finance industries in the City. Many of them have had close contact with colleagues employed at the World Trade Centre.

At a service the night before, many people broke down in tears and hugged one another as religious leaders from several American denominations came together to offer comfort. The senior pastor, the Reverend Stephen Rettenmayer, told them the church was there to receive "wounded hearts" and hear people "tell of their anguish".

Yesterday, the church was open for people to sit and pray or talk to counsellors and, by lunchtime, at least 300 people had signed the book of condolences or left flowers at the side of the building.

One message in the book read: "Words cannot express the sadness and emptiness this tragedy has left inside us all. As an American living in London, I feel helpless and wish those who lost family and friends hope in their sorrow."

Another, from a Californian signed as Shalyn, said: "I cannot explain the thoughts and feelings I as an American have right now but God will take care of those who left the earth so quickly."

Two visitors, Joanne Dupree and Sylvia Flory from Chicago, had been flying home from Heathrow after a holiday in Europe when the hijacked planes were crashed into the World Trade Centre and their flight was ordered to turn back. "They did not tell us what had happened until we got off at Heathrow and I think it was a good thing because there would have been panic," said Ms Dupree, a53-year-old social worker.

Ms Flory, 60, also a social worker, added: "We didn't know about this church but a taxi driver told us about it. We just wanted to come and say publicly how sad we are."

The Reverend Steve Gaultney, originally from Texas and an associate pastor at the church who was helping counsel people yesterday, said: "It has left a hole in New York and it has left a hole in many people. There is shock and disbelief and there is an effort to make sense of it. The other thing that people are feeling is that they have a sense of being a long way from home and feeling cut off. It is almost as if the gates have closed and they can't get back in."

The church has been inundated with offers of accommodation for stranded Americans from Londoners and people all over the South-east and yesterday there were as many British subjects as US citizens paying their respects.

Laura Walton, a 20-year-old South Bank University student who was close to tears as she came out, said: "You feel so close to it. It could have been London. It's not that I know anybody there, it is just the amount of deaths."

Thomas Reynolds, 36, and originally from Dublin, added: "No matter what you feel about Americans and their politics and social and economic policies, and I have some issues with them, it is just a human tragedy."

One message left with a bouquet next to the book of condolences spoke for many of yesterday's visitors. The note simply stated: "From your cousins beyond the great pond. Shoulder to shoulder. Hand in hand".

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