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Houses of hope

Sanctuaries in cities shaken by terror.
By Donald E. Skinner
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt preached her first sermon as the new minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City on Sunday, September 9. For two days ministry was everything she thought it would be, and then it was more. When the towers of the World Trade Center fell, her ministry was lifted up.

As terror-struck office workers streamed up Central Park West past her church, she and the church’s administrator and custodian carried a table and chairs onto the sidewalk and provided a place to rest as well as bottled water, cups, and ice. The church remained open throughout the day for those who wanted to rest, light candles, pray, and talk.

In the next few weeks McNatt spent several days counseling recovery workers at ground zero in addition to holding prayer vigils, writing sermons, and looking after her own congregation, “trying to minister to people who feel a sense of doom, and the complete shaking of their foundation, literally and figuratively.” She too was struggling with the same sense of doom and shaking foundations.

There are more than 20 UUA congregations in and around New York City and as many around Washington, D.C., but only a few lost members or friends in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet all experienced the devastation and the trauma at close range. “No one in the congregation was untouched by this tragedy,” said McNatt. “Not directly affected, perhaps, but everyone knew someone who had suffered a loss.”

Many friends and members of New York–area UU congregations worked in or near the towers. Amazingly, only six died. Five more died at the Pentagon.

“There’s really no explanation for that,” said the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, minister of the 1,300-member Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. “This church has many people who worked in the towers. Some just hadn’t gotten in to work yet or were out of the country. Two who worked on the 100th floor had lost their jobs the month before.”

One member of the Unitarian Church of Staten Island stopped for coffee in the World Trade Center lobby before work and thereby escaped. Another, a firefighter, was off duty that morning. The congregation’s minister, the Rev. Benjamin Bortin, was scheduled to lead a wedding rehearsal two days later, September 13, at the top of one of the towers. “Some of us, so far, are lucky,” he said later. “Others not.” The Staten Island church mourned the death of Richard Myhre, whose wife, Gail, grew up in the church. Myhre worked near the top of the North Tower.

The night after the attack, Forrest Church ministered to 800 people at a special service that jammed the sanctuary and spilled out into Lexington Avenue. Four hundred candles were lit that night for those missing or dead. Church estimated that half the people in attendance were visitors. “Never has there been an occasion when we needed one another more,” Church said. “It was the most moving worship service I’ve ever participated in. The depth of shared grief and mutual love was overwhelming.”

The Rev. W. Fred Wooden of the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn organized an interfaith service on September 16 on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade facing downtown Manhattan and the site of the World Trade Center. More than 2,000 people attended. He and Hope Johnson, the director of religious education, also participated in a memorial service for the Brooklyn Heights fire station, a short walk from church, which lost eight firefighters. On the altar inside the church, Wooden placed half-burned papers that wafted down from the towers, along with a Qur’an and a cross. In his sermon on September 16 he observed that, despite the destruction, life continued, especially in the playgrounds of Brooklyn, where children played amid the smoke and dust of those first days. He said, “They are the first flowers, blooming in the crevices of our broken hearts, bringing life back to our scorched home.”

At the Community Church of New York, children raised hundreds of dollars for disaster relief with bake sales and pancake brunches. A ten-year-old, H.R. Ezratty, wrote, “I feel sorrow for those affected by this tragedy and those good people in hostile nations. This was done by terrorists that misunderstood the Koran. Do not, I ask you, lash out at Muslims and Arabs. An assassin or a terrorist is not a messenger of God.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, is about three miles from the Pentagon, close enough to see the smoke when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building. As the impact of what had happened became apparent, church staff set aside two rooms as sacred space, one for quiet meditation and one for discussion. Friends and members were also encouraged to write down their thoughts and share them with the congregation. Planned programs got pushed aside. The church had planned to launch a strategic planning process this fall, but postponed it until spring. “The closer you get to ground zero the more people are affected by something like this,” the Rev. Michael McGee observed a few weeks afterward. “We were too busy dealing with healing. We couldn’t deal with the future.”

More than 1,000 people came to church on Sunday, September 16, compared to 600 in a normal week. “People felt a big need to be in a religious community. People are looking for a place to make a difference. Joining a church is one way to do that.”

Forrest Church said that All Souls in New York welcomed 15 new members every week for a few weeks after the towers fell. “Everyone is seeking a spiritual grounding,” he said. All Souls raised $50,000 for disaster relief by mid–October and expected to double that amount. The UU Church of Arlington, meanwhile, collected $11,000 on the first Sunday after the attack.

Church noted that immediately after the disaster everyone in his congregation wanted to help in some way, but there weren’t many opportunities for direct disaster aid. Instead, he encouraged his members to get involved with one of the congregation’s social justice projects. “We have 20 ongoing social outreach programs for people in our community,” he explained. “For people who want to help, in any congregation, these are opportunities that are essential to our mission as UUs.”

The Rev. Jaco ten Hove and the Rev. Barbara Wells, co-ministers at the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi, Maryland, participated in an interfaith candlelight vigil attended by 500 people. The vigil was led by Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i, and Christian clergy.

“Much goodwill has been exchanged with great hope between this area’s religious subcultures,” ten Hove wrote a week after the attack. “At one point, I overheard some of the local Muslims and a rabbi note where their teachings agree. This has helped me sustain the conviction that we can defeat terrorism by building ever greater solidarity across our cultural diversities.”

In Manassas, Virginia, a Washington commuter suburb, the congregation of Bull Run Unitarian Universalists took extra steps to make children feel loved. At the September 16 Sunday service the Rev. Kathleen Allan invited younger children to turn in a circle as she pointed out to them all the people who were always ready to listen to them. As the children left the sanctuary for their classes adults formed an archway with their arms.

Amid all the activity that followed September 11, as congregations struggled to find meaning and repair lives, and as ministers searched for the right words, some found hope in the everyday. The Rev. Jeanne Nieuwejaar and the Rev. Olav Nieuwejaar of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset, New York, wrote in their newsletter in mid-September, “On the day of the attack and on the following days the sky was a vibrant blue. The asters bloom magnificently purple. Children ride their bikes and twirl in dizzy circles. On this past weekend the ministers of the congregation celebrated three marriages, with all their tender hope and promise. As it must and as it will, with or without us, the world is moving on. But we seem to be closer together these days. We seem to place a higher value in each other than before this all happened. Everything is the same—yet nothing is the same.”

'Our shared grief': One congregation's wall of remembrance

Many friends and members of the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, New Jersey, work in Manhattan. Several worked at the World Trade Center. All are safe, but one member lost her nephew, and others had their lives changed forever by the devastation.

The Rev. Kathie Davis Thomas, the interim minister, asked people at a special service to write on a 4x6 card what they had lost, what they were feeling, and what they needed. The cards were placed on a screen titled "Sharing Our Grief." A table in front of it held a vigil candle, books from various religions, including the Qur'an, and items other people had added: photos, a Buddha, and a chalice. Thomas used excerpts from the cards at a service on September 23.

From outside his Manhattan office eight blocks away from the World Trade Center, member Charlie Neiss watched the towers fall. He wrote on his card: "I saw many things on Tuesday I would prefer not to remember. However there is one thing I do not want to forget. Standing on West Street I watched as fire engines parked and the crews got out and took their gear and walked south. Fifty to 75 walked past me. The first tower fell and they continued down. A short time later the second tower fell. Of all those who walked down no more than half a dozen came out of the dust cloud. Unlike the victims in the tower they went knowingly and willingly. I will not forget." Neiss once worked on the 98th floor of one of the towers.

A card from a Plainfield woman: "September 11 was my birthday and was to have been a day of special celebration as one year ago I was in a hospital battling cancer. Instead I find myself searching for understanding of a life filled with such despair."

A woman in her 70s: "I lived as a child in Warsaw, Poland, during the Holocaust. I have seen my home bombed and in rubble. I saw horror but not since that time have I been so affected. The events of last Tuesday—the magnitude of that tragedy is unbelievable. I suffer, I mourn, and I pray for peace in the world."

Another woman: "I've lost a nephew who ran back into the twin towers to help. His seven children, six to 16, have lost a father. My grief is shared by thousands of others. Terrorism must be stopped. I support our president."

A man whose uncle was in World War II: "Dear Lord, protect our young men and women going in harm's way. Protect our country and may our leaders lead us in a humane and loving way."

See sidebar for links to other stories from UU World's special issue on the realities of life with terrorism.

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