The flag flies at half-mast at Mainland Regional High School on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011, after a fatal accident at Exit 38 southbound of the Garden State Parkway in Egg Harbor Township involving Mainland students. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Staff photo by Ben Fogletto

Church leaders mobilized counseling and outreach efforts Sunday following Saturday’s Garden State Parkway accident that killed four Mainland Regional High School football players.

Clergy called on their congregations to keep the teens and their families in their prayers at services in communities served by Mainland Regional.

At St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish, in Northfield, candles burned beneath a statue of Mother Mary in remembrance of the deceased. Prior to Holy Communion, the Rev. Patrick J. Brady led the congregation in a prayer.

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“To our departed brothers who died yesterday, give kind admittance to your kingdom,” he said.

Substitute pastor David Chong opened his sermon at the Seaview Baptist Church in Linwood with a call for prayer.

“Please remember these families in your prayers,” he said before several dozen parishioners. “These (athletes) were gone at a young age.”

Father Malcolm MacLeod, of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Linwood, said nuns were on hand to provide support and the church would be helping with Sunday’s vigil at the high school, but he declined to comment further.

Assistant Pastor David Delaney said he worked hard to strike the right balance in his sermon to the worshippers gathered at Central United Methodist Church in Linwood.

“The thing is, you never know if a family member, or anyone, will come to our service out of need,” he said. “I’m a humble pastor. I need God to give me the words.”

Particularly in this time of crisis, he said, a few well-chosen words can make a big difference.

Delaney chose a passage from Romans 12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . and weep with those who weep.”

Even those who don’t know the victims are affected by the loss, he said.

“The first response is shock and personal terror — it’s every parent’s nightmare,” Delaney said, noting that Saturday was his daughter’s birthday.

An “easy to cry guy,” Delaney said he was trying to remain composed for his congregation, which includes many current and former students from Mainland.

“I’m hopeful a moment doesn’t hit me this morning, but if it does, it’s OK,” he said.

Dave Hanson, youth pastor at the Linwood Community Church, said his cell phone lit up with text messages Saturday from his young worshippers, their parents and other community members. They had questions about faith, as well as how the church could reach out to the community.

“We want to make sure we’re available as families need help,” he said, noting that he planned to attend Sunday evening’s candlelight vigil.

Hanson said he believes one of the injured students attends his youth group, but he had not yet been able to confirm that. He said he would use Wednesday night’s youth meeting as an open forum for young people to share their frustration and grief.

“We’re going to have some time to let them share their feelings — and anger is a big feeling in a time like this,” he said.

Paul Anselm, Seaview Baptist Church moderator, said its Sunday School classes started with a discussion of the events that had transpired the day before. He said the church will work with other congregations to support the community in the days and weeks ahead.

For now, Anselm said most of the congregation is in a state of shock.

“Our hands are tied,” he said. “All we can do is grieve with them.”

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