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Deliver Us From Evil

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Altar boys: Forrest Church on the steps of All Souls.  

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."


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