NEW YORK — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not want clergy leading prayers at the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. So a group of Christian clergymen decided to organize their own prayer service there instead.
About a dozen Protestant and evangelical clergymen gathered Sept. 10 at the site of the terrorist attack, as New Yorkers prepared for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The clergymen were joined by about three dozen people of various denominations. Standing and kneeling at the north side of the World Trade Center site, near a commuter rail station, the small vigil swelled to about 60 people. Ministers offered prayers for those who perished on 9/11, first responders, civic officials and the military.
A Catholic priest was invited to join the service but could not make it. So Chris Slattery, a Catholic who runs several pro-life crisis-pregnancy centers throughout New York City, offered a prayer for the conversion of all who are intent on violence and consumed by hatred.
“I’m not a preacher,” he began. “I’m a layman and a typical New Yorker who had 25 victims of 9/11 in my parish. There were a lot of reasons to be angry.” But, he said, “We must forgive, move on and find ways to bring our country closer together.”
The hour-long service was, according to organizers, the only public prayer service at Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan celebrated a Mass for firefighters that afternoon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as two memorial Masses on Sept. 11. At a morning Mass in the cathedral, he insisted that on 9/11, “the side of light” triumphed over the plans of the terrorists, as “temptations to despair, fearful panic, revenge and dread gave way to such things as rescue, recovery, rebuilding, outreach and resilience.”
In other public ceremonies marking the anniversary, such as one on Sept. 11 at the Pentagon attended by Vice President Joseph Biden, prayer was not excluded. At a ceremony the day before in Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed after passengers apparently wrestled hijackers for control of the plane, Father Daniel Coughlin prayed, “They became willing seeds planted for freedom’s harvest.” It is believed that the hijackers were targeting the U.S. Capitol, where Father Coughlin was chaplain of the House of Representatives.
Organizers of the Sept. 10 New York service admitted that there could be prayers offered anywhere, but said they didn’t want to see Ground Zero devoid of the spiritual on the anniversary.
“It’s critical in our nation’s history that we always pray at the battle scenes, at catastrophic locations, at crime scenes,” said Slattery.
Mayor Bloomberg was widely criticized for his exclusion from the 9/11 memorial dedication not only of religious leaders but of first responders — the police, firefighters and emergency workers who went to the World Trade Center that day. He has said that he wanted to keep the focus of the ceremony on the families of 9/11 victims.
In the end, however, President Obama, who attended the dedication, read Psalm 46, and his predecessor, George W. Bush, who led the United States’ military response to 9/11, read from a letter President Abraham Lincoln had written to a bereaved mother of five sons killed during the Civil War. “I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement,” Lincoln wrote.
Organizers of the Sept. 10 prayer service said they had petitioned Bloomberg. “The key component which sustained people throughout the dark days after 9/11 was faith, was trust in God,” said Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition. “The concern was: Why was Bloomberg excluding that?”
A Cop’s Story
Also participating was New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, pastor of New Life Outreach International Church in the Bronx. In an interview, he said that prayer is “always part of the American tradition whenever we have encountered crisis or trauma.”
“If [Bloomberg’s dedication service] is about the families, include prayer,” he said. “We know that it was prayer that got a lot of these families through; we know that it was the clergy that was here. … I can tell you, the first responders received strength through the clergy, through the chaplains, through people of different religions, because they were really despondent at that point; they were very discouraged that they were not pulling out live bodies.”
Delia Mannix can attest to that. She’s now retired as citywide supervisor for the NYPD emergency service department. She was off-duty on 9/11 but reported to work when she heard the news of the attacks. She recalls the sadness she experienced when most of the post-9/11 recovery was of body parts rather than intact bodies. And she appreciated the fact that the department chaplain, Msgr. Robert Romano of the Diocese of Brooklyn, said Mass at the police command post every Sunday.
Week after week, she said, “The numbers grew and grew. Other officers would come in, from other units, other commands. Family members would come in.”
How did her faith life play into her work? “A lot of prayer,” she said in an interview after the Sept. 10 service, “which is why this is so ridiculous, when Mayor Bloomberg said this wouldn’t be part of the public ceremony. It’s all we did — from the time we were [speeding to Ground Zero] the morning of the 11th until we closed our command post in early June 2010. We didn’t stop praying.”