Thoughts from New York

Sep 20, 2001 |Lauren Winner

The church need not be brashly evangelistic right after a terrorist attack, but if we want to comfort the bereaved, we have to comfort in Jesus.

I.

Relatives began calling Tuesday morning before I even knew what had happened. I was sitting at my computer, pecking away on a book review as planes flew into the World Trade Center. My relatives can rest assured that I am in one piece. Indeed, my experience of the events on Tuesday is pretty undramatic: safely ensconced in front of a TV, five miles north of the collapsing buildings, the burning bodies, the screams and the blood.

Seven hours later saw me, along with hundreds of my fellow Columbians, sitting in St. Paul's Chapel, attending an ecumenical prayer service. The room was packed, filled with more people than I had ever seen squeeze into the chapel, even for baccalaureate or other non-church events. The scene, apparently, repeated itself all over the city. One of my friends, a curate at an Episcopal church in mid-town, reported an attendance of 500 at a weekday service. In the Bronx, said a Presbyterian pastor, Tuesday night got a bigger turn out than at Easter.

At the Columbia ecumenical prayer service, there was more ecumenism than prayer (not surprising given that Columbia takes pride not only in the diversity of its current student body, but also in its origins as the first technically non-sectarian college in the colonies). The roster of speakers featured Buddhists, Lutherans, Jews, Catholics. A Muslim student opened with an Islamic call to prayer. Jubilation, a Christian acapella group, chimed in with a song about Jesus' love.

More interesting than the service was what happened on the steps of the chapel and the corridors of campus after the service ended.

I heard, among some students, debate. One woman said that, given what we all expect to learn in the next few days, to open with an Islamic call to prayer was hardly appropriate. Her interlocutor replied that not all Muslims are a group, that even if Arabs turn out to be behind this attack, we cannot blame everyone with honey-colored skin. The first student sniffed, and said "I don't need my college to sponsor a prayer service that begins with an Arabic declaration of the fitness of Mohammed as prophet." They were too tired and too drained for fisticuffs, but there was that much anger in their faces.

That debate made me sad and uncomfortable, but what made me even more anxious was an exchange I overheard between two young women. One was crying. The other was evangelizing. "It sure is scary to think about all those dead," the taller woman was saying, "all those dead and unsaved. I, of course, don't want to die, but I am sure relieved to know that if I had been in that building, I at least would have wound up in Heaven."

I cringed. This didn't seem to be the time for if-a-bus-hit-you evangelism. "Let's comfort people now," I thought, "not try to convert them." But I didn't really know what to do. I thought perhaps that I should intercede, but I just stood and listened.

II.

Like many in New York, I've had intense and crazily careening reactions to last Tuesday's terrorist attack. I feel terror about what happens next (they don't call it terrorism for nothing). I feel rage when I see my Muslim friend from college, and she tells me that, in the last 20 minutes, she's been spat upon, given the finger, and called a pig and a whore (hard to imagine why the word "whore" would be the epithet of choice for someone clad in hijab, but, then, racism never did submit to logic). I feel gratitude that none of my intimates are dead, and I feel unspeakable sorrow when I look at my student whose father is "unaccounted for." I feel what I can only call survivor guilt: why was I out of harm's way when the corpses of college classmates litter the southern tip of my city? And it takes nothing more than looking at a postcard of the New York skyline, the skyline as it used to be, to push me to tears.

Amid those wild emotions has stood one surprising constant: the church. I usually think of churches as pretty peripheral to what goes on in this city, which seems about as dominated by the powers and principalities as any place you can imagine. But this week, the churches have been holding the city together. (I have come to suspect that the churches are always the thing that hold New York together, I just never noticed it till now.) I don't mean that as a metaphor. I mean it as an unfashionable assertion of ontological reality: the church — both individual local congregations and the church universal — has been the glue that has kept New York from collapsing under the weight of this terrorist attack.

Of course, churches — like temples, mosques, and any number of secular voluntary organizations — have pitched in with on-the-ground relief efforts, toting water to the rescue workers downtown, opening their doors to those left homeless, setting up makeshift blood banks.

But something even more profound than social service has been happening in the New York churches, too. People are being drawn close to God. To be sure, there must be those — atheists and believers alike — who feel very far away from God right now, who feel he has abandoned us and our city, or who simply want to keep at arm's length this seemingly capricious God. But there are also those who are finding themselves, perhaps for the first time, under the shelter of Jesus' wings.

On the night after the attack, my church, All Angels' Episcopal, had a prayer service. Before the service I had dinner with a friend, a secular buddy from my doctoral program, and, so she wound up walking with me to church. When we got there, I asked her if she wanted to come in. She hemmed and hawed, but finally joined me inside the sanctuary.

The next morning I ran into another grad school acquaintance on campus. "Do you go to church?" she asked. I nodded. "You know," she said, "I hate church. I have always hated church. But ever since this happened I have been sitting in churches. They are the only place I want to be."

All week this happened. Friends, acquaintances, students and near strangers kept telling me they were finding themselves in church. Perhaps I shouldn't make too much of this: we live in a church-going country, and we get wired pretty young to feel that churches are places of comfort in times of crisis. But I believe it's more than just habit. I believe God is at work. I believe it is not just dim childhood memories, but also the Holy Spirit — perhaps the Holy Spirit working through dim childhood memories — that is getting people into church.

About the ninth time a random person began chatting to me about wanting to go to church, I finally realized I might have some responsibilities here. The person in question was Bob, a fellow student, whose sister, Jenny, had only just squeezed out of the World Trade Center when the second tower collapsed. I don't know Bob well. In fact, before this week I think I had met him a grand total of twice. I saw him at the library on Saturday, during the 20 minutes when I tried to scrape myself off the ground and function as though Tuesday hadn't happened. He waved to me from his table, where he sat reading about Tolstoy, assured me Jenny was "doing okay," and then said "I've been feeling this pull towards church. Odd, odd. Haven't been to church since I was a babe in arms. Very curious indeed." (He's a literature scholar. He actually says things like "babe in arms" and "very curious indeed." He also wears black and sips espresso.)

It was then that I had what Betty Friedan might call a "click" moment. I got it: I was a Christian, he was not, and he was telling me he wanted to go to church. "Well," I said, "let's go." So we went. To a nearby Anglican church that, I recalled, seemed to celebrate the eucharist any time someone turned around.

Bob did not receive communion. He fidgeted during the brief homily. He barely hummed along when the church sang. He didn't have much to say as we walked out of the church and back to the library. But later that night I called him (I may not be Billy Graham, but I do know you're supposed to follow up). "So how are you feeling?" I asked gingerly.

"Like something happened to me in church tonight," he said.

"Oh?" I sounded super casual. "Like what?"

"Like I learned where my surety is." (Surety. Another English Ph.D. word.) "I think I will get through this if I get through it there, in church."

I can't fast-forward. I don't know if Bob, who was baptized as a babe in arms, will pray the sinner's prayer. I don't know if he will join a Bible study. But I do know there was a bright glimmer of redemption this week. One bright glimmer.

III.

I am a little uncomfortable ending this story on that redemptive note. It seems, well, unseemly. It seems preening and triumphalistic: In the midst of the greatest tragedy ever to strike my city, I'm taking pleasure in God's saving of souls, even as I'm mourning my student's dead dad, flipping out about the possibility of an anthrax attack and generally feeling desolate and dislocated.

But the promises of Scripture are plain. One of the plainest is God's promise in Romans 8: all things work to the good for those who love Him. All things, even terrible, awful tragedies. God does not cause these tragedies, but he uses them.

I still don't think I would have chosen Tuesday afternoon as the moment to press a tract into someone's palm. (Though who's to say? God must use blundering evangelism too.) But I am realizing that my neat dyad between comfort and Gospel doesn't hold up. The church need not be explicitly, brashly evangelistic seven hours after a terrorist attack sweeps the nation, but if, at the end of the day, we want to comfort the bereaved, we have to comfort in Jesus. He is the only comfort there is.

May He continue to shield our city. As the collect says: "Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night and give thine angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary. Bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted." That's a collect I have been praying a lot this week, over and over. It is one I have surety is being answered.

Copyright 2001 Lauren F. Winner. All rights reserved.

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