A Message for the City of New York: Interfaith Memorial Service


[1] "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'where is your God?' These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God... why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God." (Psalm 42:1-5)

1. Longing for God. "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God."
[2] There was such longing here in this chapel at high noon on September 11, 2001. We were all like deer caught in the headlights. Like thirsty souls all over the world, we did what comes naturally to human beings created in the image of God. We turned to God. We sought out one another. We prayed, in the broadest possible way. We were not checking out denominational i.d.'s, worried about the proper means and cohorts to dial up the Almighty. Imams, rabbis, priests, ministers, laity of every persuasion or none gathered in this place and gave a collective primal scream to God. I stood right here and asked you to name the names, of those who were missing, those on our minds and hearts, to name them before God and one another as prayer. I will never forget the shock of hearing those names hurled at God through clenched teeth and strangled voices. I named my own names as well. "When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night."

[3] Can we remember again today that the world changed in the naming of those names? Ortega Y' Gasset, the Spanish philosopher has said, "History happens when the sensitive crown of the human inclines to one side or the other of the horizon." I heard the American heart incline, and new history unfold, as the chapel rang out with those precious names and we, in the depth of our varied spiritual journeys, called on the Name of the Lord together. In the names I heard the sensitive crown of the human heart incline from security to insecurity; from entitlement to vulnerability; from the veneer of secularity to a yearning to speak to our Maker; from insularity to solidarity. What had always been just beyond the horizon began to come into view. Everything changed. Nothing changed. Everything is connected. Nothing is connected. Where's Rachel? Where's God? What the hell happened?

[4] Two evenings later many of us attended an interfaith vigil at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. What struck me so much at the time was how deeply I longed for the best and deepest expressions of everyone's faith tradition. "Where is your God?" we asked of one another. We were far from polite, lowest common denominator community thanksgiving observance banalities. Interfaith encounter begins with faith. "These things I remember as I pour out my soul; how I went with the throng and led them in procession to the house of God." We gathered with cast down souls, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?" And with great respect for one another, and with deep integrity for what our traditions teach and believe, we were able to say to one another: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God." We were living the words of the Psalm: "deep calls to deep." As we remember, let us get back in touch with those pure moments of spiritual longing and solidarity.

2. The Open Window. "When shall I come and behold the face of God? People say to me continually, where is your God?"
[5] As we remember, let us recall that one year ago the whole world was with us in a global embrace of sympathy and compassion. Wir trauern, (we grieve) said the signs in Germany. Poli sana, (we are so sorry) said people who came up to our son and his wife on the streets of Bukoba, Tanzania where they live. At a recent meeting I attended with international Christian leaders from the World Council of Churches there was much talk about a window of opportunity for global solidarity and communion with America which opened after 9-11 and then was closed by the war on terror. I think we need to probe this. Why did the window open? Was it not because the yearning for world community and human solidarity was already deeply embedded in our collective psyche? It wasn't created by 9-11. The tragedy brought out what was already there. It is a primal spiritual hunger for our common humanity and for God. We were all deer caught in the headlights, all through the world.

"As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God."

[6] The open window was the longing for God in the embrace of one another. Did that window close only because of America's war on terror? In fact people still are grieving around the world and across our country. Yes, it's acute and raw here in New York, and will get worse as the economic effects continue to devastate at this one year anniversary, but it is close to the surface everywhere I have gone this summer. In Norway folks from the local press broke down in tears as they asked me what happened and gave me their own stories of 9-11 in their lives. In the airport in Amsterdam two gentlemen from Sweden asked us where we were from and when I said New York he said, "the hairs on my arms are standing on end." They wanted to talk about it. We must not underestimate the sense of pain, violation, and sadness which continues to linger--sometimes just below the surface. But being aware of it must not paralyze us from joining in a wider discussion about the meaning of these things for us and the world. We must observe the anniversary in front of the open window. Our drift toward wider war is troubling. People must begin to find their voices and join them together. We have been silent in this country about this. This must be done in a way which respects the sacrifices that our armed forces are making, the suffering in the countries of conflict by local populations. And it must be done in a stance of opposition to all violence. We need to do what we can to keep the window open here in America by showing the world we are willing to listen, willing to compromise, willing to speak to our own leaders about justice and peace, willing to share the best of our faith and biblical hope in ways the world can hear.

[7] In fact, the window was opened in New York before September 11. As a council of religious leaders we have remembered Amadou Diallo and addressed the racist context in which he was killed, we have gathered for reflection and prayer about poverty, we have begun to engage our public officials about pressing public issues. We gathered a year ago, not as strangers, but as growing friends. We are all minorities here in New York. We must encounter one another in real, frank, honest and ongoing dialogue. We need to help bring out the best and most peaceful and gracious traditions from one another in enduring relationships. The window is open for this. Who is your God? What, really is a Muslim? A Sikh? A Hindu? A Jew? A Christian? And what kind of world do we hope for? Did the world really change for people of faith? Or will we drift back into our narrow concerns and horizons, and the day-to-day trivia of institutional religion?

"Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life."

3. An oasis of hope grows in Brooklyn.
[8] Maybe you saw the recent PBS special on Arab Americans in New York. One of those featured is Pastor Khader El Yatim, a Palestinian who is pastor of Salaam Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. It was a good feature but they missed the main story. For over two years Pastor El Yatim has taken the lead in organizing the unity task force in Brooklyn. As the ongoing conflict in the Mideast heated up again, so did the communal youth violence in the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The unity task force was present at the liturgy covered in the PBS special. Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Lutheran Christian leaders have been joined by police, fire department, public officials and school officials in an ongoing effort which has drastically reduced youth violence, and since September 11 a community effort to prevent and respond to incidents of bias attack on people and property. They conducted an essay contest in the local public and parochial schools on the subject of unity. The awards were given out in ceremony at a local public school attended by hundreds of young people and their parents. Undergirding it all is the tough day-to-day work of building relationships among those leaders on the unity task force. When Pastor El Yatim's family's house was destroyed in Beit Sahur, the local rabbi and his congregation prayed for him and his family. When people lose their lives in suicide bombings, Pastor El Yatim and his congregation pray for those who grieve.

[9] This is hard work. Many have deep feelings about the conflict, yet have been able to try to feel the pain of the other and engage in the serious work of peacemaking and honest dialogue. Can we multiply these grassroots efforts at building human community? Can we, as leaders, demonstrate the resolve to hang in there with one another? "Deep calls to deep." Much in our traditions and our history is less than flattering. Christianity, like all traditions, has plenty of blood in its past and present. Much in our traditions would lure us away from one another and into our own narrow visions of the world and place limits on the grace of God. What will rise up among us from the tragedy and sorrow of New York? Can we be ourselves in relationship with one another? "Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone before me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life."

4. Rebuilding Ground Zero. "My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'"
[10] Let's get one thing straight. Ground zero is the whole metropolis. The point of impact is downtown, but we have all been broken, wounded, filled with tears. And September 11 only deepened what's been going on for a long time.

[11] At Ground Zero when the remains of a child of God were found, something remarkable would happen. All activity would cease. The pile would gentle down to silence. With bowed, uncovered heads everyone at Ground Zero would show consummate respect for life as the remains were lovingly brought out from the rubble. Then all of the concerted effort, first for rescue, then for recovery, would resume again.

[12] Think of the Ground Zeros we have missed, and those we have yet to address. Can we see the same reverent respect for life, and the same sheer effort at rescue and recovery for people with AIDS and their loved ones? For neighborhoods where the vision for rebuilding is to spend more for jails than for schools? For the stranger among us, now hunted and blamed and subject to extra legal detentions? For the economic victims who never had anyone give them a thousand dollar a plate dinner: the undocumented, the Fujianese sweat shop worker in Chinatown; the domestics and limo drivers, the window washers and food stall vendors; the homeless who might find a bed in a Bronx jail. Those of you who are here as public officials: will you work with us to rebuild all of the city? Will you help us say a prophetic word to our government that the very values we say were attacked on September 11 must be preserved and that we in our vulnerability and insecurity must not be exploited by our leaders at the expense of our freedom and compassion as a city and a nation? Will you join us in believing that the way to global security is not through war, but through the well being of every child of God on earth? Can we extend the holy respect for life and heroic effort of Ground Zero to our entire city, metropolis and world? We're serious about rebuilding and we are serious about the nurturing the spiritual infrastructure of our metropolis.

"Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God."

[13] When I had the privilege of participating in the interfaith gathering at Abyssinian Baptist on the Thursday after September 11, I had a strong feeling of LutheranBaptist déjB vu. I remembered that the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he was teaching at Union Seminary, enjoyed worshipping at Abyssinian. His good friend Adam Clayton Powell was his counselor as Bonhoeffer made the decision to go back to Germany and help the church resist Hitler. This martyr of the church also taught catechism at Abyssinian. Here is what Bonhoeffer wrote to mark Hitler's ten year of power.

[14] "We used to think that one of the inalienable rights of persons was that one should be able to plan both one's professional and private life. This is a thing of the past. The force of circumstances has brought us into a situation where we have to give up being 'anxious' about tomorrow (Matt. 6:34). But it makes all the difference whether we accept this willingly and in faith or under continual constrain. For most people the compulsory abandonment of planning for the future means that they are forced back into living just for the moment, irresponsibly, frivolously, or resignedly; some few dream longingly of better time to come and try to forget the present. We find both these courses equally impossible and there remains only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. 'Houses and fields and vineyard shall again be brought in this land' proclaims Jeremiah (32:15) in paradoxical contrast to the bleakness of his time. It is a sign from God and a pledge of a fresh start and a great future, just when all seems bleak."

[15] May it be so among us as we remember September 11 and live spiritually out into the future.

"As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. Why are you so cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God..." Amen

© October 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 2, Issue 9