Congregations respond to terrorist threat

They dig deeper for spiritual wisdom in how to go forward

Parking lots at houses of worship across the country were often packed, with standing room only at some services. In many cities, people of diverse faiths lit candles and joined in community prayer vigils. Amid incidents of harassment, some mosques held open houses, both to clarify for neighbors the teachings of Islam and to thank those who reached out in reassurance.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, millions of Americans have turned to religious communities not only for solace, but also to embrace and support one another in unprecedented ways and to begin to consider where and how to go on from here.

Just as televised prayer services have helped the nation come to terms with its shared grief and disorientation, so the actions of clergy and congregations are helping to calm fears, counter divisive acts, and encourage open discussion on the values that should guide the country's short- and long-term responses to terrorism.

Congregations play a role as "comforter," says the Rev. Jeff Black of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. "When you pray together, you claim a higher source of security, and assert that we are all human beings wanting comfort, that we're giving it to one another and getting it from God."

They can also play a role as "clarifier," he adds. When we are angry and upset, "it's a moment of great spiritual danger, so we need to remind ourselves to proceed carefully with whatever sense of humility we can muster."

"We also need to dig deeper for religious wisdom and the spiritual insight to guide our responses," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Call to Renewal, a national group of clergy based in Washington, D.C.

The first priority for clergy has been meeting the pastoral needs of members, and many denominations have marshaled resources to support them as well as to extend emergency help to those directly affected in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Denominational websites offer chat rooms for sharing grief and seeking guidance, educational aids for parents and teachers to meet the needs of children, concise explanations of the teachings of Islam, samples of interfaith prayers, and updates on support for disaster-relief efforts.

Denominations are working closely with the Red Cross and Church World Service to give pastoral care to victims' families and recovery workers. Interfaith clergy teams have counseled families visiting the Pennsylvania crash site and workers cleaning up the site, and have offered similar help at the Pentagon. Long-term pastoral support is planned for ground zero in New York City, including a Family Assistance and Child Care Center.

Countering hate crimes

Another outpouring of caring has come in the wake of the reprisals and hate crimes that have sprung up across the country. As mosques and businesses have been vandalized, and individuals harassed or threatened, congregations, religious leaders, and interfaith groups have responded vigorously.

"The energy in reaching out with thousands of calls and letters has been unprecedented," says the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC). "For example, the mosque near Dulles Airport was spray-painted inside with all kinds of epithets, but they have also been overwhelmed by gifts of money and volunteers from churches and synagogues."

Mr. Black's church in Austin sent a special collection to the local mosque "to say 'we're glad you're here,' " he says.

Despite threatening calls and hate mail, the Islamic Society of Boston welcomed more than 700 people to an open house on Sept. 16, because they had also received strong support. "People have been wonderful, coming to the mosque with flowers and accompanying us in prayer," says Yasmine Dabbous. In response to community demand, the society is offering a four-part introductory course on Islam.

The Islamic Society of Greater Houston has formed a new American Alliance for Justice and Peace, involving 37 organizations, with the aim of educating the entire community about diverse faiths. Sikhs and Hindus are joining because they, too, have been targeted, simply because they look different, says Mustafa Tameez, an advertising representative.

A Sikh gas station owner was killed in Mesa, Ariz.; and a Sikh spiritual leader in Virginia, an IFC member, was threatened on the highway by two truck drivers as he was on his way to give blood for victims of the Pentagon attack.

This week, the IFC announced steps toward healing the wounds of such actions and building broader understanding. It will offer new educational programs for children and adults, publish personal essays on each faith, and work to strengthen teaching about religion in the schools. An area workshop for teens to deal with prejudice and stereotypes is planned for Oct. 8. IFC congregations are also forming partnerships with those of other faiths to encourage ongoing interaction.

"We've seen terrible incidents, leading some foreign students to choose to go home," Mr. Lobenstine says, "but there is also an outpouring of calls, of people asking how they can help."

Confronting these concerns and the challenging issues of responding to terrorism at home and abroad, religious leaders are speaking out publicly on the basis of shared values.

Under Mr. Wallis's leadership, a religious response to terrorism called "Deny Them Their Victory" has been prepared. It is to run this week in The New York Times, with the signatures of at least 2,500 clergy from across the US. Their call to action urges sober restraint and limits to military retaliation, asserts some of the values to be pursued in the process, and proposes that houses of worship become public arenas for community discussion and healing.

Call for self-examination

"The weakest part of the Bush administration's response has been explaining why people [overseas] are so angry," Wallis says in an interview. "We are missing the Lincolnesque quality of calling us to self-examination.

"We need time to reflect together, and religious communities ought to be places where this national conversation takes place," he adds. "The media should act as our town meeting, but so far it hasn't done so."

Lobenstine worries about the tendency to "wrap the flag around our Scriptures" and assume all we do is right. "We need to acknowledge that our policies around the world are a mix of good and bad," he says.

Any policies proposed to strengthen security at home deserve the same careful scrutiny, clergy say. Jewish leaders, for instance, have taken strong public stands, not only against hate crimes, but against any profiling of Arab-Americans.

One Muslim, born and raised in the US, says he was nervous traveling by air this week to visit his father, who is having surgery. "Dad didn't want me to come because some men have been taken off airplanes just because of how they look," he says. He worries that such steps could turn into profiling in every aspect of life.

A Gallup poll this week shows a majority of Americans back profiling of Arabs, and 50 percent support the use of national ID cards.

"While feelings of anger and vengeance are understandable," Wallis says, "we can't allow this to change who we are as a people; we need to respond out of our best values, not out of worst instincts."

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