December 23, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) -Sukhwinder Sandhu plans to welcome the New Year in a quiet place surrounded by flowers and glittering lights: his Sikh temple in New York City.

He has no doubt that God will be at all millennium observances, no matter how loud. ``God is everywhere,'' he says, smiling broadly beneath his turban. ``God will be in Times Square, too.''

Still, while shouts of the crowds will mark the New Year for millions, legions of men and women throughout the country plan to herald the millennium in private prayer and communal worship.

Protestants will hold prayer vigils and Catholics will light candles, though the turn of a year is not normally a time of religious observances. Even those whose traditions do not recognize the Gregorian year 2000 are taking notice.

Buddhists will chant for peace. Pagans will celebrate beginnings and ends. And while the Christian milestone holds no religious significance for Jews and Muslims, some say that ushering in a new century carries its own spiritual weight.

``There's a large group of people in America who are making sure spirituality is somehow a part of New Year's Eve,'' says the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

When church members expressed a need for something spiritual at New Year's, Williams helped plan an interfaith celebration of music, dance, poetry and prayer to be held in Union Square.

``More people ... want something that gives meaning to their lives,'' Williams says. ``Not just a rowdy yelling, screaming ... drunken experience. What they want is an experience of the spirit.''

Sixteen-year-old Anna Whitlow agrees. She'll be spending the week at Winterlight, a Christian youth retreat in Hendersonville, N.C.

``It's cool making a start of the century knowing that you're going to be real close to God,'' says Whitlow, who will travel from her home in Baton Rouge, La. ``I can feel free to be myself and pray and talk about God.''

She's not alone.

In Washington, D.C., a coalition of religious groups will hold events, including a New Year's Eve service at the Washington National Cathedral with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It's part of the ''72 Hours Project'' in which religious groups around the world will hold services to promote peace. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York will open its doors all night for millennial worship, hosting a concert with Paul Winter.

More than 100 people - three times the usual number - will join the Franciscan Friars and the Sisters of the Atonement for their annual New Year's retreat. They will stand on the top of the Mount of the Atonement in Garrison, N.Y., where they'll wait in silence for the millennium, and then descend carrying torches.

At San Francisco's Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church, New Year's Eve coordinator Tom Keelan has set up a medieval labyrinth walk to be held inside and outside the church.

``It's a calming meditative way for people to bring in the millennium,'' says Keelan, who expects 3,000 people to walk the winding route. ``A lot of people want to begin walking in 1999 and end in the year 2000.''

Meanwhile, in the northeast Michigan community of Alpena, St. Anne Catholic Church hopes to draw 100 people for a song-filled Mass followed by a ``time of adoration'' as the millennium nears.

``Two thousand years of Christianity,'' says the Rev. Joe Blasko. ``Of anyplace you want to be, it's in a church worshipping.''

Several Buddhist groups will hold retreats that address suffering and compassion. As midnight approaches, the Vajralama Buddhist Center in Seattle will offer a guided meditation ``on the mind of enlightenment.''

No place to go on Dec. 31?

On the Web, author James Redfield will lead what he describes as a global wave of prayer.

Another spiritual party is being thrown by the Taos, N.M.-based All One Tribe Foundation. Participants worldwide will drum together in unison for the final hours of 1999.

Mormons are not planning church celebrations. And Muslims will not be marking the beginning of the Christian calendar during their own holy month of Ramadan, though they may take part in secular celebrations.

New Year's Eve this year corresponds with the Jewish Sabbath, and some groups want to discourage celebrations. In New York, a student planned a large Sabbath dinner at a Kosher restaurant for New Year's Eve. But the Orthodox Union, which certifies that restaurants meet Kosher dietary laws, forbade the restaurant from holding the event on the grounds that it could turn into a celebration of a Christian holiday.

Still, numerous Jewish congregations are marking the moment. The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership is calling on Jews to make New Year's Eve ``a night when we, as Jews, reflect on what we have contributed to the world, and what we might do to improve it.''

The National Jewish Outreach Program has launched the Shabbat 2000 campaign to encourage Jews to mark the millennium by observing the Sabbath by saying prayers and refraining from work. The group is distributing candles, sparkling grape juice and instructions on how to use them - a Shabbat ``starter kit.''

``I want to get these boxes in the hands of every Jew,'' says Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchward, director.

The Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers, has historically rejected holiday parties. Still, some Quakers plan to gather at their New York meeting house before midnight. People from the meeting's homeless shelter will be invited to join them as they sit in silence waiting for the still voice they call the Inner Light.

``We'll all sort of take care of each other,'' says John Maynard, who likes the idea of celebrating community at the start of a new century.

But celebration has its limits.

``I'll be in bed by 12:30,'' he says. ``That's two and a half hours after Quaker midnight.''

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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