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Opening our hearts

Unitarian Universalist congregations and volunteers respond to 9/11.
By Donald E. Skinner
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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It wasn’t the fall we had planned for ourselves. We had things to do and a church year to get under way. But on September 11 terrorism intervened and Afghanistan and anthrax became central to our conversations, raising fears and questions that trouble our souls.

When the first horrible images filled television screens that beautiful September morning, our congregations swung into action. We activated phone and e-mail lists, opened the church doors, organized meditation and prayer vigils, and rewrote sermons and newsletter columns. Many of us grieved the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances. For many more, coming to grips with terrorism meant deep spiritual introspection.

Karen Geer, a lawyer whose office was on the 85th floor of the World Trade Center, struggled with both. The planes struck before she got to work, and five people in her firm died. Geer is also the soprano soloist in the choir of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, the Unitarian Universalist church nearest ground zero, so music is her therapy.

“I just sing until my voice won’t work anymore,” she says. “I feel the music in a much different way than before, and words mean more to me than they used to. The other thing I’m doing is trying to find meaning in the big questions like, ‘Is my life the way I want it?,’ ‘Does my life have meaning?,’ ‘Am I kind?,’ ‘Am I helpful?’ These questions are more in the front because I could have been there.”

Unitarian Universalists across the continent responded to terrorism by making contact with our Muslim neighbors, giving money and blood for disaster relief, writing letters to Congress, even taking out newspaper ads. And now, months later, we are still at it—learning about Islam, about just war doctrine, and about living in a world where we must cope with fear and uncertainty about what will come next.

For many of us church seems more important. As the Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs, co-minister at Unity Church–Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, observes, “No one is questioning the purpose of church now. People understand its role in their lives. People who had a church on September 11 had a place to go that could embrace and hold them and hear their unanswerable questions.”

In the following pages you will find stories of Unitarian Universalists and their congregations, from churches opening their doors to all comers on September 11 to the educational forums and teach-ins that are continuing this winter. There are stories about UU volunteers: ministers working at ground zero as chaplains, a boat captain who ferried people out of Manhattan, a Red Cross radio operator who described the wreckage he saw as “hell on earth.” There are stories about how UU congregations in and near New York, Washington, and the Pennsylvania crash site responded to their front-line roles. “Everyone here knows someone who died,” said one New York minister. Eleven friends or members of UU congregations are among the dead and we remember them in these pages as well.

After reading the reports about the depth of their responses you may agree with the Rev. Paul Beedle of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside, California, who told his congregation on September 16, “It is said so often—so often that I find it tiresome—that Unitarian Universalism has no center, that Unitarian Universalism is confusing because of all the diversity we embrace, that Unitarian Universalism has no coherent identity. I deny all that. After this week, do you think our faith has no center? Do you think it is confusing? Do you think we have no coherent identity?”

As we struggle to learn how to live in a reshaped world, anthrax is only one of the many things to worry about. But we should also take heart in sharing in a religious movement that can not only sustain us but has the will and the ability to make a difference in this new world. There is much to do and now is the time to do it.


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See sidebar for links to other stories from UU World's special issue on the realities of life with terrorism.

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