It was the sort of gesture that would have seemed corny before September 11. At Mass on a recent Sunday, Father Cassian Miles of St. Francis of Assisi, on West 31st Street, passed a tray filled with pennies around the church and asked each parishioner to take one. Consider its message, he instructed his congregation: In God we trust.
It’s the basis of all Christian belief, Miles observes of the deceptively simple words inscribed on our currency. “No matter what happens, we have to trust the Lord.”
No matter what happens are words that have a great deal more gravity for New Yorkers than they did seven weeks ago. Trusting in some higher power – and not just the mayor or the president – is suddenly important to a great many worshipers of secular success who have, for the better part of a decade, done pretty well, thank you, trusting largely in their own powers.
Since September 11, New York has become newly receptive to religion, a city awash in spirituality. Churches that normally see 600 people for Sunday services have reported crowds of up to 2,000. Many are still reporting increases of up to 50 percent. Synagogues were packed far beyond capacity during the High Holidays. At Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park, 50 new families – many of them couples in their thirties – have joined since then; Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue predicts 125.
For a few days after the attacks, a profound sense of brotherly love seemed to be floating northward along with the smoke. Strangers wept together, standing speechless in front of makeshift altars of candles and flowers that appeared to grow out of the pavement. New Yorkers rediscovered the need to congregate – to share, to grieve, to shake our heads in disbelief. But many also discovered that there are other needs only religion could meet. Lesley Norman had always been turned off by strict religious doctrine and stayed away from church. But the Sunday after the attacks, Norman, a vice-president at a film production company who lives on the Upper West Side, accompanied a friend to Unitarian services. “I thought, why not?” recalls Norman, who attended – and later joined – the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side. “So I went, and I loved it. My own internal spirituality was always there, but this felt like it was time for a bigger communion.”
Norman was hardly alone in finding a way to fillthat new need. “A lot of people have experienced a door flying open at thesame time something slammed shut,” says Ann Belford Ulanov, the ChristianeBrooks Johnson Memorial Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at UnionTheological Seminary. The central question, says Ulanov, is “What am Iliving for? What is the meaning that I’m finding that’s assembling itself onthe horizon of this catastrophe, and how can I make that actual?”
The Reverend Thomas K. Tewell of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian worried at firstthat September 11 might turn people away from God. But he has seen theopposite. “So many people are open to God for maybe the first time in theirlives,” he says.
“It was an epitome of success to be up there in the Twin Towers, a dream ofa career ladder, a life in which one worked extremely hard and enjoyed thefruits,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. “Peoplenow have to say, What is the dream and what is the point? I’ve heard a lotof people asking that question.”
Cowan, who conducted a memorial service for a victim of September 11,believes the large number of young people who died in the attacks will havea profound effect on an entire generation now forced to question their livesand decisions – to ask, What can I learn? “A different group of people isthinking about this at a different phase of their lives,” Cowan says. “Theseare profound questions. It’s not ‘I’m scared, let me go to shul andget bonus points.’ “
Four weeks after the terrorist attacks, morethan 1,000 New Yorkers sat transfixed in St. Bartholomew’s church.Buttoned-down executives and untucked women in head scarves reached acrosspews and shook hands with conservative-looking elderly couples, baggy-panteduptown boys, the H&M set. “I’m Susan.” “Nancy.” “D’Angelo.” “Seven.”They made eye contact and smiled.
“Dear God, weave our hearts and minds together,” Marianne Williamson beganonce the choir had finished. “Save our nation and save our precious world.We pray tonight for miracles, and we open our hearts to receive them.”
Over the next two hours, the New Age spiritual leader drew from the Bible,Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Gandhi;she spoke of “the angels that live in each of us,” the importance of lovingour enemies, the need to “up the dosage” of spiritual medicine in order tosave the human race. She entreated the audience to surround the city of NewYork with a divine shield of love, to make the world “vibrate at a level oflove so high that nothing not love can touch it,” and to place theterrorists in “holy quarantine.”
“Every time you think of bin Laden, place around him a diamond egg,”Williamson said with earnest conviction. “The hate-filled thoughts and plansthat might emanate from his consciousness can’t get past the eggshellbecause it’s a hard substance. But at the same time, the diamond lightshines back upon him to heal him.” Finally, she led the audience in a guidedmeditation, calling forth “the gorgeous elixir of the love of God” to healthe planet.
It was just what her teary-eyed crowd, struggling with helplessness, wasseeking: a response to the unaccustomed self-consciousness of being theobject of hatred. While more traditional theologies may not be as patentlyreassuring about the power of projection, they address the same sense of thepotency of evil, a concept many sophisticated city dwellers wouldn’t havereferred to without an ironic twist in August. “We’re not used to the scaleof the evil, and it’s got people looking for answers,” says Reverend LindleyG. DeGarmo, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in the Village. “All thegreat religions have wrestled with those ultimate questions, so there’sexpertise there – but they’re not necessarily easy answers.”
As the weeks pass, the horror of the TradeCenter collapse has yielded to a growing anxiety that the terrorist attackswere a carefully planned and executed rebuke to our consumer-driven,status-obsessed society. “We are a very blessed people,” says Dr. ArthurCaliandro, senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church on lower FifthAvenue. “We’re the wealthiest country. We have unbelievable freedom. We haveeverything imaginable materially. And we’re arrogant. We complained abouteverything.”
“There are people down at ground zero who say this is the work of God orit’s God’s wrath,” says the Reverend Tom Synan, priest associate at theUpper East Side’s Church of the Heavenly Rest. “One said the only thingdifferent between New York and hell is that New York is surrounded by water.People like that need to go home. The work that’s going on now at groundzero – there’s the work of God. People of every faith, tradition, you nameit, all working together for the greater good. The brilliant evil has sincebeen met and is being overcome now by the greater power of love.”
“When Falwell and Robertson glibly say, ‘Well, the United States is beingpunished for all of our liberal views,’ ” the Reverend Tewell said in aSeptember 23 sermon, “they are basically saying that if America is good, Godwill bless us, and if America is bad, God’s protective covering is takenaway. And I say, as lovingly as I can, that’s bad theology.”
Many mainstream pastors are struggling to revive the fighting faith of ColdWar religious leaders like Reinhold Niebuhr, who combatted Communistideology with a humility grounded in original sin.
We did not cause the terrorist attack to happen, Caliandro says – but thatdoesn’t mean we shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to redefine ourselvesin the face of the fundamentalist challenge. “It’s a call to humility and tograce. What are we doing with what we have? Are we appreciating it andmaking sure the rest of the world gets to the point where they can have whatwe have?”
“The refrain I keep coming back to is that the Chinese word for crisis hastwo word-pictures – one for danger and one for opportunity,” says theReverend Forrest Church, pastor at All Souls. “I feel very strongly that theuniversalist faith we proclaim must be now embodied with the same vigor andpassion that those who have a more divisive and fanatical fundamentalistfaith power their own beliefs by. So I have become, to the extent that onecan be, an Evangelical Unitarian.”
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, of Farah Mosque in TriBeCa, applauds the return tofaith he’s seeing – whether or not it’s his own faith. “We assert thatsalvation can be found outside our own parochial tradition,” says Rauf. “Soit is good to see people attend their church. It’s symbolic of a recognitionthat there are values that are more important than material values.”
Religious historians generally point to 1965 asthe year that attendance began to decline in American churches andsynagogues, fueled by an explosion of competing ideologies and a potentsuspicion of institutions of all kinds – the same cynicism the nationalmedia now seems so intent on convincing us is a relic.
“There was a spike in attendance at religious services in the fifties andearly sixties, a direct response to the Cold War,” says Randall Balmer,professor of American religion at Columbia and Barnard. “There was a sensethat we as Americans had to present a united front against the evils ofgodless Communism. The American response to the terrorist attack has beenportrayed relentlessly by the president and his surrogates as a crusade ofgood against evil. To the extent that that resonates with people, they willbe religiously active themselves.”
Some of the city’s clergy have discovered a more immediate wellspring for arenewed sense of mission. Rabbi David Woznica found himself with few answersfor a woman who had lost more than 70 co-workers in the World Trade Center.”She asked, ‘Why wasn’t it me?’ and ‘How am I supposed to go on?’ ” saysWoznica, executive vice-president of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation andscholar-in-residence at the 92nd Street Y. “I remember holding her, cryingwith her. I know some people would have responded that God was protectingher. But what does that mean? That he wasn’t protecting the other people? Ifshe felt that, I wouldn’t dissuade her. But theologically, it’s hard toaccept.”
For Woznica, it is crucial to understand that there is evil in the world.”When religion is defined exclusively by ritual and not by moral behavior,we have done a terrible disservice to religion.” So Woznica feels hatred isan appropriate emotion right now (but he’s careful to point out that it mustnot become obsessive). “In the Psalms, there is a line that says, God lovesthose who hate evil. There are times when it’s appropriate to hate peoplewho do evil.”
Andrea Dudrow, a secular Jew who moved to theLower East Side from San Francisco in August, could count on one hand thenumber of times she’d been to temple in her 29 years. But on Rosh Hashanah,six days after the attacks, she headed to services with some family friends.”Everything I came to New York for – the energy of it – seemed to bemissing after the tragedy,” she says. “So it was nice to go to a communitywhere people were feeling warmly emotional.”
For atheists and agnostics who wanted to feel connected, the absence of anynonreligious communal grieving – and the frequency of “God” rolling off thetongues of their friends and neighbors – created a stark sense ofisolation. “I definitely feel jealous of religious people right now, I haveto say,” a writer who describes herself as agnostic confessed at the end ofSeptember. “I feel this sense of longing, like I’m missing out on something.For those who don’t belong to a major religion, Starbucks and Barnes &Noble don’t really do the trick.”
“We couldn’t think of anywhere else to go,” says Anne Brandenburger, aninterior designer who has been commuting from Greenwich with her husband andtwo children, 12 and 14, to attend services at the Unitarian Church of AllSouls – after an absence of more than ten years. “It dawned on me thatthere was nowhere else to go but back where we hadn’t been in a while.”
All Souls, which received triple its usual attendance levels the first fewSundays after the attacks, is still experiencing a 50 percent increase. Thechurch’s development office is fielding fifteen requests a week from peopleinterested in joining the congregation; 40 have already become members.
“People seem to be taking their own spiritual temperature,” says ForrestChurch. “They’re reexamining their lives, their priorities, and in a strangeway they’re contemplating their own obituaries. I’ve heard this a number oftimes. They’re contemplating not just what life means but what meaning theyare bringing to life.
“I repeat as a mantra here that the purpose of life is to live in such a waythat our lives will prove worth dying for,” says Church, who used hisOctober 7 sermon to meditate on “the wonder of being” – something hebelieves any religion must inspire in its faithful. “God is our name for thegift that can’t be named, the proof that can’t be checked, the power and thepurpose that we will never parse,” he told his multidenominationalcongregation. “The terrorist attack disproves the existence of God no morethan it disproves the existence of love or the existence of goodness. Whatit does is to remind us once again, first of all, how precious life is andhow fragile, and then of the inestimable worth that love and goodness bothpossess.”
Five minutes before the second tower collapsed,Robb Gordon and his colleagues at the American Stock Exchange fled throughthe back door onto Greenwich Street, hurrying in the mid-morning twilightthrough ankle-deep debris. Then there was a booming noise and Gordon lookedbehind him to see a massive black cloud. He ducked into a bar with hisfriends, only to watch the cloud of debris scud past moments later. Afirefighter stumbled down the street and collapsed in front of the bar,struggling out of his equipment.
“You really felt you were in hell,” Gordon says. As he left the bar and madehis way south again, he recited to himself the familiar refrain of Psalm 23:”Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fearno evil: For thou art with me.”
“You see it, feel it, smell it – but you think, this is impossible,” saysGordon, a Reform Jew. “Is this how it all ends? Is this what’s supposed tohappen? You pray.”
When his office relocated temporarily to Philadelphia, Gordon packed a Torahscroll in his suitcase. Since then, he’s been talking to his rabbi, PeterRubinstein, about Jewish mourning rituals, which call for several stages ofmourning; the third began at the 30-day mark. “The period of reflectionbegins now,” says Rubinstein, of Central Synagogue. “People begin to ask thelarger questions. How do I live with uncertainty? How do I make sense ofmoving from this extraordinary period of prosperity and ease to where I haveto be careful about where I walk and where I fly?”
“People are going through a real spiritual transformation,” says SethCastleman, a practicing Jew and Buddhist who teaches meditation in cityprisons. Castleman volunteered round-the-clock in the weeks after the 11th,offering his services as a spiritual counselor at Chelsea Piers to familiesof victims and at ground zero to the firefighters and other rescue workers.Besides bearing witness to the grim details of the clean-up effort, he’sseen deeper personal crises taking place. Young volunteers doling out coffeeand gloves to rescue workers say they feel a deep sense of purposelessnessin returning to their regular lives and no longer find meaning in theirrelationships or their jobs.
“We think about change in our life as crossing the street,” says Castleman,who often speaks in parables. “Once you step off the curb, the object is toget to the other side as quickly as possible. But on the personal journey,you have to go into the woods. If you come out too quickly, you’ll just bein the neighboring village. You have to stay in the woods for a longtime.”
New Yorkers are not used to going to the woods. Survival here has alwaysrequired a different skill set entirely; “personal journey” has tended toinvolve a day at a spa. Will New York ever become a city of Mother Teresas?It’s hard to envision. So just how far can “love thy neighbor” truly gohere? What happens when your neighbor steals your cab on a rainy night? “Wehave to live in the world, and we aren’t all going to be monks and nunsliving in caves,” admits Castleman. “We’re also material beings. It’s not somuch about rushing to the answer as about staying with the question. Thekarma of an action doesn’t come from the results; it comes from thequestion. One can be a fully enlightened stockbroker and really bring wisdomand kindness to brokering stocks.”
Tewell agrees. “What I’m seeing is a change in people’s priorities, thatthey want to make a difference instead of just making money. That they wouldtake some of their time and start to do volunteer work or invest incharitable organizations that make a difference in this city. That could belasting.”
The September 11 attacks sent people scurryingto worship, but for many the tragedy was simply a catalyst for somethingalready under way. The excess and materialism of the nineties left many NewYorkers longing for greater meaning: The obsession with yoga, the risingpopularity of meditation, the explorations into other Eastern spiritualpractices – these were the outlets through which some grasped at a notionof inner life. “There has been for a number of years a spiritual interestwhich has nothing to do with church,” says Caliandro.
“There was a reaction to the prosperity and opulence of the nineties,” saysRubinstein. “People have been asking, Is this all there is? There werelarger spiritual movements which were already at work. There was an increasein attendance at services over the years, a willingness to be involved insocial-action programs, a search into matters of meditation.”
“I don’t think you want to talk about the spirituality of the moment withoutsaying the ball was already on the tee,” says the Reverend Daniel PaulMatthews, rector of Trinity Church, who believes the quest that was alreadytaking shape has been “capped off with this enormously complex andevil-filled reality. That gives the spiritual quest legs. It gives it amomentum, an earthiness, a gutsiness, a concreteness, where maybe heretoforesome of the people were thought to be a little light-headed to seekspirituality in such a material world.”
Lesley Norman agrees. “To be honest, I was ready for this,” she says,admitting she would never have gone to church under normal circumstances.”The church showed up. Things have a way of doing that when you’re ready forthem.”
The extent to which interest in religion andspirituality will continue apace over the coming months, or even years, maydepend much on the role religious leaders adopt. Many view this as achallenge that they must live up to. It’s a window of opportunity not onlyto counsel people through crisis but to restrengthen community, reintroducefaith into daily life, and help shape the future of the city.
“I hope that many people in our church didn’t walk into this without somearmor, some reserves to help them through it,” says the Reverend Calvin O.Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. “I hope they wereprayed-up enough to get through this. Now we have the opportunity to takesome of the men and women who are coming for the first time, to begin to getthem into spiritual shape.”
Butts, a longtime opponent of the mayor, stood side by side with RudyGiuliani – after a warm embrace – during the prayer service at YankeeStadium and in the days that followed. Butts, who is as surprised as anyoneat his newfound alliance, believes unity is the key to spiritual rebirth.”People of faith have to work extra hard here to capitalize on the unitythat has been established in New York,” he says. “If the clergy and men andwomen of God don’t think it’s possible, then what hope have we? I’m sayingyes, it’s possible. It’s got to be possible.”
“Good intentions are not going to sustain it,” says Tewell. “What the churchoffers is a community to help keep you accountable, to change yourlifestyle, to know where and how you can make a difference, to make itbite-size and digestible.”
As Al Qaeda and the Taliban seek to rally the Muslim world to take up armsin the name of their religion, some people who describe themselves asreligious are feeling uneasy. A member of Brotherhood Synagogue questionedthe logic of raising his children into something so potentially divisive.”He questioned what he was doing in synagogue,” recalls Rabbi Daniel Alder.”He was feeling that religion divides people, that it contributes to wars.Is that what he wants to pass on to his children?”
“The U.S. historically has undergone great awakenings, a couple in eachcentury,” says Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center forInterreligious Understanding. “Unfortunately, each one of these has usheredin a period of xenophobia and nationalism and all kinds of stuff that is notgood.”
When people turn to religion, says Bennett, there is on the one hand anelement of resistance to prejudice and demonization. “The Abrahamicreligions hold in common the notion that every human life is precious, theideas of caring for the stranger, hospitality, human rights. That’s thestuff that is really at the heart of the great religions. But of coursethese things get distorted when they get politicized.”
Alder and other clergy are taking pains to dissociate themselves from anyform of fundamentalism, and are advocating the importance of inclusiveness.”The Bible wasn’t written as a history textbook but as a moral,” says Alder.”The moral is that we’re all brothers.”