President Obama visited a city in mourning Thursday, casting himself as an old friend as he promised that the perpetrators of the Marathon bombings would be brought to justice and that the community’s resilience would carry it forward.
Addressing more than 2,000 people, including many who witnessed the bombings, and millions more watching from work and home, Obama spoke with affection about his ties to Boston during an emotional interfaith service. Invoking the grit of marathoners, he told a rattled city that, in the aftermath of the attack, commitment to a free and open society would triumph over fear.
“That’s what you’ve taught us, Boston,” Obama said. “That’s what you’ve reminded us — to push on. To persevere. To not grow weary. To not get faint. Even when it hurts. Even when our heart aches. We summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on. We finish the race.”
The service, held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, included reflections from clergy of different faiths and from Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick. The Boston Children’s Chorus and the cathedral’s concert choir sang, and Yo-Yo Ma gave a haunting performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Suite for Cello.
As the sanctuary fell silent, and the first strains of “Amazing Grace” rose from the cathedral choir, there was a sense the whole town was there, in person or in spirit.
The pews held doctors in scrubs, runners and race volunteers in marathon jackets, and politicians in suits, including four former governors. There were soldiers in camouflage fatigues, emergency medical technicians in khaki uniforms, and police in blue. The family of bombing victim Krystle Campbell came, as did a young man with crutches who had been injured in the blasts.
Two X-ray technologists in blue hospital scrubs found themselves seated next to Ma in the second row. They had been working when the bombs exploded and casualties flooded the hospital. They were back at work Thursday when they were dispatched to the interfaith service.
“I wish I brought a suit,” said one of them, Mervyn Williams, glancing down at his blue fleece jacket, embossed with “Boston Medical Center Department of Radiology.”
“But,” he said, “I’m so proud to wear this jacket.”
The Rev. Liz Walker, of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, opened the service with a question that she said confronted — and confounded — people of many faiths.
“How can a good God allow bad things to happen?” she said. “Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?”
She said she had no answers. “But this is what I know,” she said. “God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering, in this sanctuary, and beyond. “
The ailing mayor, discharged just hours earlier from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he was recovering from surgery, seemed to physically embody the pain and resolve in the air. He arrived in a wheelchair. With a terrible grimace, he pushed himself to his feet to speak.
He said his love for the city and its people had never been stronger.
“Nothing will take us down, because we take care of one another,” he said, his voice ragged with feeling. “Even with the smell of smoke in the air, blood on the streets, tears in our eyes, we triumphed over that hateful act on Monday afternoon.”
Outside, the sun shone and a cool wind blew. Thousands gathered on Washington Street in a queue that stretched for blocks.
Security was tight; the streets surrounding the cathedral were blocked off, bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the streets; bags and water bottles were not allowed inside.
Among those waiting was Lorri Miner, 54, of Quincy. Her hands shook as she clung to a US flag, and tears ran down her face. She said she was a recent widow and coming to the cathedral was the only thing she felt she could do to help the victims of the bombings.
“I just needed to be here,” she said. “This city needs prayer.”
Matthew Van, a tall Boston University graduate student, arrived alone in a shirt and tie.
“I came here today,” he said, “to show that we’re made of stronger stuff than the crazies who tried to destabilize us the other day.”
The clergy who spoke offered somber reflections on tragedy, the presence of God amid suffering, and the power of taking care of each other.
Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel, the city’s largest synagogue, quoted a Hasidic sage, “The entire world is a narrow bridge, but the important principle is to transcend, somehow, your fear.”
Nasser Weddady, director of civil rights outreach for the American Islamic Congress, read a verse from the Koran that he said brought him comfort after witnessing a car bombing as a child growing up in Damascus: “Whoever kills a soul, it is as if he killed mankind entirely, and whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved all of mankind.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, said the tragedy, on Patriots Day, “shakes us out of our complacency and indifference and calls us to focus on the task of building a civilization that is based on love, justice, truth, and service.”
The governor gave thanks for the selflessness and resolve on display in the aftermath of the explosions, pointing to the surgeon who finished the Marathon and kept on running, straight to his operating room.
“Massachusetts invented America!” he said, to applause, calling the bombing an attack on America’s civic values of equality, opportunity, freedom, fair play.
“We cannot permit darkness and hate to triumph over our spiritual faith, so we must not permit darkness and hate to triumph over our civic faith,” he said. “That cannot happen. And it will not.”
Obama said that, like many Americans drawn here by the city’s colleges and universities, cultural institutions or the Boston Marathon, he had “a piece of Boston in me.” He and Michelle Obama attended Harvard Law School, and at the 2004 Democratic National Convention here, he made the breakthrough speech that put him in the national spotlight.
“For millions of us, what happened on Monday is personal,” he said. “It’s personal.”
He painted a vivid picture of the city on Monday — sun glinting off the State House dome, signs of spring in the Public Garden, people jumping onto the T to see the Sox at Fenway.
“In Hopkinton, runners laced up their shoes and set out on a 26.2 mile test of dedication and grit and the human spirit,” he said. “And then, in an instant, the day’s beauty was shattered.”
He spoke of each of the three dead: Krystle Campbell, he said, “was beautiful, sometimes she could be a little noisy, and everybody loved her for it.”
Lingzi Lu was a 23-year-old student far from home, he said, “and in the heartache of her family and friends on both sides of a great ocean, we’re reminded of the humanity that we all share.”
Eight-year-old Martin Richard, in two now-iconic photographs, is “forever smiling for his beloved Bruins, and forever expressing a wish he made on a blue poster board: ‘No more hurting people. Peace.’”
The president addressed the wounded, including those who lost legs in the explosions, suggesting that some may be watching from hospital beds.
“We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again,” he said, as the sanctuary burst into applause. “Of that I have no doubt. You will run again.”
Of the perpetrators, he said: “We will find you. We will hold you accountable. But more than that; our fidelity to our way of life — to our free and open society — will only grow stronger.”
This time next year, Obama said, “the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder, for the 118th Boston Marathon. Bet on it.”
As people streamed out of the dim nave into the bright sunshine, Linda Denekamp, a nurse at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said she found the service uplifting. “It was inspiring — one of the most moving things I’ve heard,” Denekamp said.
Francisca Benedict, of Jamaica Plain, said she was struck by the hopeful tone.
“It reflected who we are as a community,” Benedict said. “We’re not focusing on the terrible thing that happened, but on how we can come together as a community.”
Two runners in their 50s from suburban San Francisco, Karen Richards and Cheryl Babel, wore their yellow and blue Marathon jackets to the cathedral.
On Monday, Richards felt the shudder of the blast and saw the plume of smoke as she crossed the finish line. Babel had to stop a half-mile short when she heard what she thought was thunder, or a celebratory cannon.
Both had run the Marathon before and through the race had developed a kinship with the city that brought them to the cathedral Thursday.
“Boston is a part of all of us,” Richards said. “You take a piece of Boston in your heart every time.”
Wesley Lowery, Martine Powers, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness @globe.com.