New York, Dec. 19--(AP) As wrecking balls tore into the remains of the World Trade Center one block away, Arnie Morrison grasped Angela Ruggero's hand and murmured, "I love you, my sister. Praise the Lord."

The encounter is one of dozens taking place every day at "prayer stations" that line the sidewalks near ground zero. In the three months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, religious groups have flocked to New York City to comfort the afflicted and spread the faith. Vanloads of Southern Baptists have volunteered to clean apartments near the trade center. An evangelical ministry dispatched pastors to the neighborhood to write out checks to business people and workers, with no applications, no red tape. Volunteers have taken turns at the site observing the Orthodox Jewish ritual of shmira - saying prayers 24 hours a day, every day. Other groups of many faiths have distributed food and clothing as they handed out religious tracts.

But the prayer stations are one of the most visible manifestations of the phenomenon. Big red signs adorn the booths, and the volunteers wear red aprons that read, "Prayer changes things." The volunteers, organized by an interdenominational Christian organization called Youth With a Mission, are from all over North America and usually spend a week at a time in New York. Their booths are set up on every block along Broadway from Fulton Street to Wall Street.

Ruggero, a Queens woman viewing the trade center ruins for the first time, said she felt better after the impromptu prayer session. "I did find it very comforting to know that people do care, even though they don't live in New York," she said.

Morrison's group came here from California, and teams from Canada and Louisiana were in town as well. "We'll each pray with about 30 people a day," said Carlos Russo of Lafayette, La. "One woman cursed me out. I gave her a double blessing."

Russo's 20-year-old son, Frankie, said that at first he was "kind of afraid" of New York. "You just think of New York and you think cold-hearted," he said. "But I've found that people realized they were in need."

Youth With a Mission is a 40-year-old organization that claims 12,000 volunteers in more than 100 countries. The prayer stations have been a presence in lower Manhattan since shortly after the attacks, and they are not leaving any time soon. "When we surveyed some of the folks that worked with the Oklahoma City situation, we were told that one of the big mistakes was to leave too early," said Nick Savoca, metro New York director of Youth With a Mission. "We were told that it was really necessary that a group stay on and at least pass the first anniversary of the event. And so we are committed to continue this daily prayer station work right through the end of 2002."

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