9/11 Traced new Spiritual Lines

By Jennifer S. Altman 

Jewish author Pricilla Warner is seen at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY. Warner co-wrote “The Faith Club,” with two women who are Muslim and Protestant.

Thousands were killed in a cruel, distorted vision of Islam, a religion that teaches peace. And for millions of Americans, the immediate response was to drop to their knees in prayer.

Sanctuaries filled for memorial services. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York remembers crowds overflowing St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

A decade later, the soulful response seems fleeting. Statistically, the rush to the pews was a mere blip in a long-standing trend away from traditional religious practice, according to tracking studies by The Barna Group, a Christian research company.

What’s lingering is the spiritual impact revealed when 9/11 stories are recounted through individual recollections of faith reborn, revitalized or reshaped.

By Rob Sumner, Red Box Pictures, for USA TODAY

Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill Church, a multi-site mega church in Seattle, said after 9/11 he “felt a new sense of urgency to evangelize.”

This is how people speak of an internal resetting of the compass, of journeys down pathways once unfamiliar, even unimagined. Pastor Mark Driscoll, who was 30 and just building his Seattle church a decade ago, says he discovered he was more fragile, more dependent on God, and more urgent about launching new churches than he’d known.

“Life is filled with opportunities to do good. We don’t know how many we have, so you want to be there to invest, love and not take any day for granted,” he says. His Mars Hill Church is now a multisite mega-church and he is a co-founder of Acts 29, a network that has launched 400 new congregations here and abroad.

By Craig Volpe for USA TODAY

Before 9/11, Fatemeh Fahkaire, a U.S.-born daughter of Iranian parents, was “just a white girl with a funny name.” The attacks “found my identity for me before I was ready to find it for myself,” she said.

Fatemeh Fahkaire, then a college freshman in Utah, was “just a white girl with a funny name” when the 9/11 attacks “found my identity for me before I was ready to find it for myself.”

Within a few years, the U.S.-born daughter of Iranian parents began practicing Islam with fresh commitment. She founded and edits a website, Muslimah Media Watch, where 16 feminists of faith critique coverage of their issues in world culture.

This month, as she prays and fasts for Ramadan, Fahkaire, based in a Portland, Ore., suburb, observes, “Sept. 11 was 10 years ago and the media are still trying to explain Islam.”

Others found themselves trying to explain Judaism and Christianity.

“I was a different kind of human being and a different kind of Jew before this experience,” says Priscilla Warner, of Larchmont, N.Y., home of many Sept. 11 victims and survivors.

Gone were the days when her religion was simply her heritage — not discussed, not examined, not questioned. “Sept. 11 brought God out of the closet,” Warner says.

By 2006, she had co-authored a bestselling book, The Faith Club, with Suzanne Oliver, a Protestant, and Ranya Idliby, a Muslim. It chronicles how they had set out to find common ground and wound up each growing richer, going deeper in their religious traditions. Today, hundreds of Faith Clubs across the U.S. are modeled on their efforts.

Changing ‘spiritual priorities’

But statistics indicate most people were not so drastically reshaped and motivated by the Sept. 11 experience. A Pew Research poll in December 2001 found that those who said they prayed or worshiped more in the aftermath of the attacks were people who already were the most religious.

 Indeed, the number of people who are “unchurched” — who have not attended a service or event other than a wedding or funeral in the last six months — increased from 24% in 1991 to 37% in 2011, according to two decades of studies by George Barna, founder of the Christian research firm The Barna Group. What never wavers: Nearly all Americans, about 95%, consistently say they believe in God or a higher power.

And that moves to the forefront during a crisis, says David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group and author of a new book, You Lost Me.

“National and global events can get our attention for minutes and weeks, but personal crises — divorce, losing your job, death and economic instability — really can recalibrate spiritual priorities,” he says.

The terror attack was not the only wallop for the New York region during the past decade. Kinnaman says people were also affected deeply by the 2001 tech bust and the lingering challenges of the 2008 recession.

Weekly church attendance in the region is up from 31% in 1999-2000 to 46% in 2009-10, according to Barna Group surveys.

“Unsettling times are moments when people have an option to look around and see how they will make sense of things, and religion is one of those options,” Tony Carnes says. He is publisher and editor of A Journey through NYC Religions. That’s the website of a research project begun in 2009 to document every sign of faith in the city, from churches to storefront temples to faith-inspired graffiti on a city wall.

No similar census serves as a baseline of attitudes from a decade ago. But Carnes, after looking at historical records, sees exponential growth in the number of evangelical churches just in central Manhattan where the counting is complete.

And Carnes estimates 40% of that growth has happened during the tumultuous last decade when the city experienced international immigration, an influx of educated young professionals from across the USA and economic upheavals beyond Sept. 11.

Turning toward God in traumatic times is a comfort for many believers.

Understanding others’ religion

For others, Sept. 11 revived old arguments about whether violence is inherent in Western religion. The Rev. Franklin Graham stands by his 2001 comment calling Islam “evil,” while offering Christian love to individual Muslims.

Psychologist and theologian Fraser Watts of the University of Cambridge in England, where 53 died in a terrorism attack July 7, 2005, says the 2001 attack affected people’s thinking about religion in general, and for some, pointed an accusatory finger at Islam.

“A decade later, I would like to think people are getting their minds around the diversity of Islam, just as Christianity is quite diverse. I think we are becoming more discriminating about religions — finding that some aspects of all religions are good or bad,” Watts says.

“Just as 9/11 forced people closer toward unhealthy black-or-white views, polarizing views on religion, it also highlighted the urgent need to move the opposite way, toward a growing awareness of the need to understand more about each other’s religions.”

R. Scott Appleby, professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame, notes that media-star atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens rushed out a wave of bestselling books condemning Sept. 11 as symbolic of “the new face of religion.”

For Appleby, a Catholic scholar, the attacks became “a moment of decision. I had to step up and affirm the vast majority of believers in Islam and other religions who are represented by mercy, compassion and education — not extremism.”

Appleby cites examples of “scholars, public intellectuals and religious leaders stepping forward in new ways to connect with each other and isolate extremists on all sides.”

•The Common Word, an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI from 100 Islamic scholars and leaders of Islam in 2007, explored Muslim and Christian teachings on universal brotherhood, love and forgiveness.

•Former British prime minister Tony Blair created the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to sponsor interfaith community action and university studies around the world.

•Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Willams, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has written books and initiated a series of interfaith dialogues.

Imam Abdul Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has lead a mosque in Manhattan since 1983, was a veteran of interfaith work when the Sept. 11 attacks threw an unwelcome spotlight on Islam as a religion claimed by the terrorists.

“It was doubly traumatic for us. I lost members of my congregation in the attacks and we had to engage even more robustly with our fellow Americans in seeking healing and expressing that Islam itself is not responsible,” Rauf says.

But he triggered an explosive reaction when he tried to launch a community center, with space for prayers — a Muslim equivalent of the nationally known Jewish center, the 92nd St. Y on the Upper East Side — two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The project, inaccurately branded the “Ground Zero Mosque,” is now known as Park51. But by any name, it became emblematic of a fear of Islam, and protests spread across the country.

“If 9/11 had not happened, there would have been much less opposition. The perception is that my religion attacked America,” says Rauf, who still expects Park51 will be built — someday.  continue :source