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'The good we can do'

Unitarian Universalist responses to 9/11 from around the world.
By Donald E. Skinner
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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That first weekend after the terrorists struck, most congregations revised their programs. Sermons and newsletters were rewritten. Projects that could be put off were. But for some congregations, what they had planned to do turned out to be what they needed to do.

Three congregations—the Community Church of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Durham, North Carolina, and the UU Fellowship of the New River Valley in Blacksburg, Virginia—had scheduled a Jubilee World anti-racism workshop for September 15 and 16. Organizers considered canceling it.

“I thought people would simply not want to leave their homes,” said Lea Wells, an organizer. “But we started making calls and everyone insisted this was exactly where they needed to be. We had incredible turnout and a wonderful workshop.” One of the groups formed a Middle Eastern study group as its anti-racism project.

At the historic First and Second Church in downtown Boston, the September 16 Sunday homecoming service had been planned as a celebration to welcome the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, the new senior minister. It became, instead, a service of reflection and remembrance for the terrorism victims. The church was filled, and near the end of the service Kendrick led everyone outside, where they stood quietly while the church bell was rung nine times and then eleven more times to mark the date of the attacks. Then Kendrick told those who had gathered, “The purpose of the terrorists was to take the joy out of life. It’s time to go back inside and have our party.” And they did.

And the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, went ahead with its 40th anniversary celebration. “Almost without exception,” said the Rev. Carol Meyer, “congregants were very glad for this opportunity in the midst of so much sorrow and grief to celebrate the good that we can do together.”

Many congregations reported record attendance on September 16. More than 1,500 came to the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, welcomed 1,000.

Many congregations seized the moment to educate themselves and their communities about Islam, the Middle East, and issues of war and peace. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Meadville, Pennsylvania, gathered professors of political science and psychology and a minister who had studied Islam to present a forum that was broadcast on cable television.

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, Michigan, stands across the street from a mosque where a vandal threw a brick through a window on September 12. “We went over there several times in the first week and stood in front of their windows during their services,” said the Rev. Larry Hutchison. Before September 11 the two congregations had cooperated on other issues, including a march in support of Iraqi children. “We’re just trying to be here for each other,” he said.

The Rev. John Burciaga, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, in Paradise Valley, Arizona, attended the memorial service for a Sikh service station owner shot to death on September 15 in a shooting spree that also targeted the home of an Afghan couple. The UU congregation welcomed a Sikh leader into its service the following week.

When UU World asked congregations to tell us how they responded to the September 11 terrorism we heard extraordinary reports of caring and bold leadership. These are a few of your stories. All of the rest—and there were quite a few—will be compiled and kept in a denominational archive.

Reports from across the nation

At the First Parish–Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, a former member donated an original drawing of the church, which was auctioned for $750. The church raised an additional $3,000 and donated all of it to the American Red Cross. By mid-October, congregations and individuals had contributed more than $500,000 to a humanitarian relief fund created by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Service Committee.

Children at the Unitarian Church of Davenport, Iowa, made friendship boxes, including toothbrushes, crayons, and small toys, for the Red Cross to distribute. Children and youth at the First Parish in Brewster, Massachusetts, made peace flags. Children from many congregations—including the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kansas—made drawings and friendship notes that they sent to local Muslim schools.

The First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, installed two large banners on its downtown block that state, “United We Stand: We support our Arab-American and Muslim Friends and Neighbors.”

The Rev. Jane Rzepka, minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, reminded her congregants through the church’s Web page that there are many ways to heal. “Some of us rely on words, others on silence,” she wrote to the congregation’s 3,177 members, who are scattered all over the world. “Hugs help for some, for others it’s walks, tea, perspectives from news commentators and religious leaders, ritual, favorite passages of poetry, talking it through. If you found yourself cleaning your closets, shopping for a replacement washer, gathering with other UUs, donating blood, pruning the hedge, writing checks to charity, holding your children, corresponding with your Muslim friends, calling your mom—fine. It’s what we do, and all of it is holy and helpful.”

Douglas Steen, a Unitarian Universalist in Boulder, Colorado, launched a “Stop the Hate” Web site two days after the terrorists struck when his wife, a university professor, reported threats to people who looked like Muslims or Arabs. The site, www.stopthehatepledge.com, asks people to sign a pledge “not to meet hatred with hatred.” Within a week he had 5,000 signatures, which he planned to deliver to Muslim and Arab groups.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County in Churchville, Maryland, took out a half-page ad in a local newspaper on September 19. The ad, a letter to President Bush, asked for restraint and a reasoned response to terrorism. The ad said, in part, “We have now fully joined most nations in the world in knowing the devastating loss due to terrorism. Some nations have endured this for generations. Yet we have every confidence that we, as a world community, can find a way not only to exact justice, but to disable the networks of terrorism wherever they flourish.”

The 48-member Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bismarck, North Dakota, fought to ensure that a community prayer service would represent other faiths after conservative Christian ministers announced that it would be “Christian-only.” Fellowship members Vinod and Aruna Seth (Hindus as well as UUs), Vice President Don Morrison and President Carol Jean Larsen, launched a phone campaign and went on talk radio. With just hours to go, the ministers relented.

Vinod Seth opened the service. Aruna Seth sang a Hindu prayer. Other UUs read the English translation. A Muslim read from the Qur’an; someone else offered a Baha’i prayer. These alternative voices got top billing on television news. More than 4,500 people attended.

Responses from abroad

The Rev. Dávid Gyerõ, counselor to the Rev. Dr. Árpád Szabó, bishop of the Unitarian Church of Romania, reported that many Transylvanian congregations contacted their partner congregations in the U.S. to say, “We hope you are fine. We love you.” Gyerõ wrote to the UUA, “We trust that the United States will respond to these attacks by searching for justice, remembering that no political or social ideals can be served or corrected by violence.”

Lene Lund Shoemaker, lay pastor of the Danish Unitarian Church in Copenhagen, wrote, “We are back to the eternal question about how far one should tolerate intolerance. Terrorism is clearly unacceptable, but open war against terrorists will almost unavoidably end up hurting more innocent than guilty.”

In Sydney, Australia, members of the Unitarian Church in New South Wales read from William Ellery Channing’s address “On the Duties of Citizens in Times of Trial and Danger,” written during the U.S. war with Great Britain in 1812. In France, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris gathered to hear Kaddish for victims of the attacks. Unitarians in Pakistan lit candles.

Back in Boston, David Concepción, a member of the First and Second Church young adult group, e-mailed his friends, urging them to get involved with political action and humanitarian help. “Don’t give up,” he wrote. “Stay connected. I believe that great things will grow out of chaos. Since September 11 we have been in constant dialogue with one another. Keep sharing ideas, jokes, songs, tears, poems, photos, whatever. I hope and pray that we can come out of this much better than when we were plunged into it.”

A show of solidarity

Within hours of the terrorist attacks, the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the UUA, called on Unitarian Universalists to reach out to Arab and Muslim communities in the United States facing threats of reprisals. Speaking at a service of prayer and remembrance at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., on the night of September 11, Sinkford said, “We need to remember that there are Muslims and Arab allies who gather tonight just as we do, to pray for their souls and to pray for our society.” Sinkford visited the offices of the American Muslim Council in Washington on September 12, offering the UUA’s encouragement and support. Two days later, he also encouraged UUs to reach out to Sikhs. “Though the Sikh community is not Muslim,” Sinkford wrote, “they too are at risk of being blamed for this tragedy.”

Unitarian Universalists quickly found ways to reach out. The First Unitarian Universalist Church in Detroit, Michigan, gathered outside the Islamic Center, its neighbor across the street, after a vandal destroyed one of the mosque’s windows on September 12. While 50 adult congregants held a vigil outside the Islamic Center during an evening prayer service, children made drawings, which were mounted on the front wall and used to cover the broken window.

The First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, put up a banner declaring its support of the Muslim and Arab communities. The need for a visible sign of solidarity became especially urgent when one of the congregation's members and an Arab companion were dragged from their car and beaten. The church also hosted a forum with Arab and Muslim speakers. Despite the pain of recent events, social justice director Kate Lore welcomes the improved interfaith communication. “The September 11 attack and our commitment to respond has opened up a window of dialogue with the Muslim and Arab community,” she says.

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

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