God at Ground Zero

Pastors gather to pray where New York Mayor Bloomberg holds secular remembrance.

(photo: John Burger)

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 today. So a group of Christian clergymen decided to organize their own prayer service there instead.

About a dozen Protestant and evangelical clergymen led a service yesterday morning at the site of the worst terrorist attack on America, as New Yorkers prepared for both the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and a possible al Qaeda truck bombing to mark the occasion.

The clergymen were joined by about three dozen people of various denominations, first gathering in front of St. Paul’s Chapel, a historic Episcopal church in downtown Manhattan, then processing to the north side of the World Trade Center site. The procession was led by the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council in Washington, D.C., who held a Bible aloft.

At Ground Zero, now a construction site, as tourists and passengers emerging from the nearby PATH commuter rail station walked by, the small vigil swelled to about 60 people.

Police presence was beefed up in New York, and some officers stood guard with automatic weapons. Occasional sirens echoed through the cavernous downtown streets of Manhattan.

One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, planned as a 1,776-foot office building, rose above the small prayer group as, one by one, ministers offered prayers for those who perished on 9/11, the first responders who strove to rescue those inside the towers, 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. One of my wife’s brothers spent three weeks here on the bucket brigade, taking out body parts. My son just joined the National Guard, fighting for the freedoms we hold so dear.”

But, he said, “We must forgive, move on and find ways to bring our country closer together.”

The Hand of God

The hour-long service was, according to organizers, the only public prayer service at Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

There were other services planned for the weekend, however, including a Mass for firefighters that afternoon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

In addition, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was scheduled to celebrate two memorial Masses today, one at 9am in the cathedral, with bells tolling for the dead, and one at 12:30pm at St. Peter’s Church, just a block away from World Trade Center site. Cardinal Edward Egan, who was archbishop of New York on 9/11 and was involved in a religious response to the disaster, was to give the homily at the later Mass.

Organizers of the Sept. 10 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. “This is why the main ceremony tomorrow is at Ground Zero.”

Mayor Bloomberg has been 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 appeared onstage at the dedication along with his predecessor, George W. Bush, read Psalm 46.

Organizers of the Sept. 10 prayer service said that their ceremony came together hastily because of the controversy but also because they wanted to give Bloomberg a chance to reconsider. Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition, and New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who is also an ordained minister, said they had collected about 100,000 signatures on a petition that they submitted to Bloomberg.

“The key component which sustained people throughout the dark days after 9/11 was faith, was trust in God,” said Mahoney, a minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. “The concern was: Why was Bloomberg excluding that?”

He said the group wanted to pray not only for those who died and for the healing of those they left behind, but also for protection of the nation. “We’re facing a credible terrorist threat right now,” he said. “We could have a million police officers on the street, but it’s the hand of God that has protected us for 10 years and will continue to protect us.”

A Cop’s Story

Mahoney, speaking in front of St. Paul’s, also noted that the first thing George Washington did after being sworn in as the nation’s first president in nearby Federal Hall was to go to this church for a prayer service.

Ministers noted that President Obama, in a proclamation, said the weekend should be marked by “prayer, contemplation and memorial services.”

Cabrera, pastor of New Life Outreach International Church in the Bronx, 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 prior to the ceremony. “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 was here that Friday when the president [Bush] of the United States came, and 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, which, among other things, responds to hostage situations and potential bridge jumpers.

She was off 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 their 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 9/10 prayer 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.”

John Burger is the Register’s news editor.




The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy