After 9/11, some lives recast for greater good
How three Americans were spurred to new life purpose in wake of terrorist attacks.
Courtney Cowart barely escaped the collapsing World Trade towers in a terrifying flight from an adjacent building. But she returned days later to the edge of ground zero to organize a ministry in St. Paul's Chapel, where recovery workers came to sleep and find succor over eight agonizing months.Skip to next paragraph
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She calls that moment on the street – when she thought she'd be buried alive – the defining moment of her life.
"There's this gut-level coming to terms with yourself – how well and truly did I live my life?" Dr. Cowart recalls. "That experience, followed by the way people served one another in the chapel – how life-giving it was to pour yourself out for one another and how that keeps your heart open – is still very much what guides me today."
On this seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans are rededicating themselves to the themes of unity, compassion, and service that so characterized their actions in the aftermath of the tragedy. In Washington, D.C., churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are joining in the fourth 9/11 Unity Walk, which has been televised and shown in other countries. In Los Angeles, thousand of youths are meeting for a Peace Jam conference to launch a decade of service projects.
Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain – at the urging of a coalition of families of 9/11 victims (MyGoodDeed.org) – have agreed to a campaign moratorium for the day, including a halt in advertising. The candidates will visit ground zero together and speak at a ServiceNation summit in New York, designed to expand America's commitment to national service. (See story below.)
But for some individuals, 9/11 represents much more than a tragedy calling for annual commemoration: It has reshaped their lives.
Rabbi Hirschfeld, bridge builder
Sept. 11 "changed everything" for Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld of New York.
"It forced me to reconnect with, reexamine, and take responsibility for the way in which radical religion, fanatic faith, absolute certainty had dominated my own life for certain years," he says. During his late teens, he had been involved with ultranationalist religious Zionists in Hebron in the Holy Land. Living within a "self-justifying system," he remembers viewing violent behavior as redemptive.
Now president of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership in New York, Rabbi Hirschfeld says all religious people have to ask themselves the hard questions about how faith functions in the world. "The issue of 9/11 is not Islam; it's fanatic faith."
Since 9/11, "I've committed every waking moment of my life to these issues ... to the new and emerging roles religion has in the 21st century, and how to allow that to unfold without it becoming fanatical, hateful, or triumphalist."
That journey has taken him to remarkable places. At the invitation of American Muslims, for instance, he is beginning his third year as host of a program on Bridges TV, the American Muslim TV Network (on cable in several cities). On the "Building Bridges" show, Hirschfeld discusses everyday concerns and contentious issues with Christian and Muslim leaders.
"9/11 made me realize there was no way for me to do the work I was doing in the Jewish world without also making my connections and work with people of other faiths an equal priority," he says. He's written a guide: "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism."
Arsalan Iftikhar, 'clash' dispeller