SUVs at altar, Detroit church prays for a bailout

DETROIT Sun Dec 7, 2008 6:41pm EST

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DETROIT Dec 7 (Reuters) - With sport-utility vehicles at the altar and auto workers in the pews, one of Detroit's largest churches on Sunday offered up prayers for Congress to bail out the struggling auto industry.

"We have never seen as midnight an hour as we face this week," the Rev. Charles Ellis told several thousand congregants at a rousing service at Detroit's Greater Grace Temple. "This week, lives are hanging above an abyss of uncertainty as both houses of Congress decide whether to extend a helping hand."

Local car dealerships donated three hybrid SUVs to be displayed during the service, one from each of the Big Three. A Ford Escape, Chevy Tahoe from GM and a Chrysler Aspen were parked just in front of the choir and behind the pulpit.

Ellis said he and other Detroit ministers would pray and fast until Congress voted on a bailout for Detroit's embattled automakers. He urged his congregation to do the same.

Other Detroit-area religious leaders -- including Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders convened by Cardinal Adam Maida -- have urged Congress to approve an auto aid package.

But the service dedicated to saving Motown's signature industry at Greater Grace Temple was the highest profile effort to mobilize support yet.

"Everybody can't live on Wall Street. Everybody can't live on Main Street. But all of us have lived on the side street, the working class," Ellis said. "I call it the working class because everything tells me there is no more middle class."

Key Democratic lawmakers and the Bush administration were locked in negotiations over the weekend aimed at offering at least $15 billion in short-term loans to keep General Motors Corp (GM.N) and Chrysler LLC from immediate bankruptcy.

Automakers and their political allies contend a collapse by the industry would cost up to 3 million jobs as suppliers, dealers and companies in related industries were hit in turn.

Representing the 150,000 unionized workers at GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co (F.N), UAW Vice President General Holiefield said the industry had made its case for emergency funding as strongly as it could.

"We have done all we can do in this union, so I'm going to turn it over to the Lord," Holiefield told the congregation.

Ellis said he started to organize the service last week after hearing from auto workers, retirees and their widows who were all fearful of even harder times.

At one point, Ellis summoned up hundreds of auto workers and retirees in the congregation to come forward toward the vehicles on the altar to be anointed with oil.

"It's all about hope. You can't dictate how people will think, how they will respond, how they will vote," Ellis said after the service. "But you can look to God. We believe he can change the minds and hearts of men and women in power, and that's what we tried to do today."

Michelle McDade, 50, who attended the service, said her late father had worked at GM for 30 years and her mother was now living on his pension.

"I pray in good times and in bad times, but I pray these days because it's something that directly affects our lives. "Politicians forgot autoworkers for ages. You can't just forget them. We're also part of the country."

Founded in 1927 when Detroit was an automotive boomtown, Greater Grace Temple is one the city's largest and most influential black churches.

The church was the site of the 2005 funeral for civil rights figure Rosa Parks. (Editing by Leslie Adler)

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