NEW YORK—An atheist stood outside the church doors Sept. 13, calling others to come in.
Steven Chang called out to passersby who stole a glance at the Transfiguration Catholic Church on Mott Street, New York, “You can come inside. You can pray here if you want.”
A reporter from New York's Newsday noted the scene, one of many moments that showed that even non-religious Americans were seeking out houses of worship in the aftermath of the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
People magazine noted that in some areas, like Chicago's central city, “houses of worship were among the few buildings remaining open.”
Those buildings were packed—churches that ordinarily saw about 150 worshipers now fit over 700. Memorial services and interfaith vigils marked every town's mourning.
Some commentators in 1999 suggested that reporters had been unprepared for the outpouring of religious faith, especially in teenagers, after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Since then, stories on Christian revivals and religious upsurges in general have filled newspapers and magazines. A July Newsweek cover featured Christian rock music.
But these stories tended to treat religion as a “new trend,” rather than an integral part of the American national fabric. As smoke that smelled like burning cement settled over Manhattan and military planes roared above the nation's capital, media outlets covered religion as less of a trend than a necessity.
Religions Come Together
The Washington Post noted that the Jewish High Holy Days were less than a week away when the hijackers struck.
The period of repentance and prayer began with Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 17. One Washington-area rabbi said that he intended to abandon his planned readings for the day, choosing instead the first verses of the Book of Lamentations: “Lonely sits the city once great with people. She that was great among nations is become like a widow.”
The Jewish tradition also has a period called Onanut, the period between death and burial. People reported that Rabbi Jeffrey Marx of Santa Monica, Calif., told an inter-faith service, “For the next few weeks, we are all in a state of Onanut.” Then Jews, Christians, and Muslims prayed together: “I believe in the sun, when it is not shining. I believe in love, when not feeling it. I believe in God when God is silent.”
After the attacks, all services became inter-faith. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Jordan Cherrick, a Jew, “wanted to pray with others.” So Cherrick sought out the St. Louis Abbey. As the monks prayed, Cherrick sang the 129th Psalm in Hebrew.
The Post-Dispatch also found that Lambert Airport had become an unofficial house of worship, as passengers whose flights made emergency landings flocked to the airport's chapel.
Heading for the chapel was “a given,” passenger Carol Joyce, of Stony Brook, N.Y., told the Post-Dispatch. “As soon as they announced Mass, that was where we were going.” The paper noted that many of those in attendance were unfamiliar with the Mass, and had come to the chapel because it felt like the right thing to do.
After an attack that cost more lives than Pearl Harbor, in which unknown assailants sent thousands of civilians to their deaths with no warning, media outlets noted that Americans sought a spiritual understanding of what had happened and how they should respond.
Both New York's Newsday and the Montreal Gazette focused on the Christian call to forgive one's enemies. At St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the Gazette found Catholics struggling with the biblical teachings.
“I keep telling myself to forgive,” one man told the Gazette. “But it is hard.” One couple in the process of divorcing had come to pray for forgiveness for their own sins. When asked about the hijackers, the husband responded, “My sense is it is always important to forgive, but it is up to others to ask for forgiveness. If they don't want it, I can't forgive them.”
The Washington Post asked Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie, the chaplain of the Senate, for his views. Rev. Ogilvie, a Presbyterian, replied, “I preach and teach and counsel forgiveness in personal relationships. There are times, however ... when there must be a confrontation of force to bring justice.” He cited World War II as an example.
The disaster was also a spur for press reflections on the communal nature of religion—the way even the most intensely personal worship unites the worshiper to a community and a tradition. An editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette disputed the view that religion is a purely solitary concern: “Our first instinct as we wait for reassurance that our friends are safe is to find other people who are also waiting. And then, when we hear the worst, we will want to mourn with others.”
The Post-Gazette added that after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Jews banded together in groups to study Scripture. “To this day, Jewish scriptural study is done in pairs,” the editorial noted, while Jewish prayer is done in groups of at least 10.
For everyone, the Post-Gazette wrote, religion reminds us “that our grief is shared by a community: not just across the world today, but across time.”
Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C.