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9/11 affected the city’s religious life in unnoticed ways

In 2011, the anniversary of 9/11 also fell on a Sunday, providing a unique opportunity to see how churches were affected by the event.

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This Sunday Sonia Anderson and Mignolia De la Vega are raising funds at a 9/11 "Remembrance" for immigrants hurt by the attacks. Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Hamilton Heights, Manhattan. A Journey photo

In 2011, the anniversary of 9/11 also fell on a Sunday, providing a unique opportunity to see how churches were affected by the event. Most of the 10th Anniversary attention to religion will be on the large ceremonies produced by the downtown Manhattan religious establishments or on churches with rosters ravaged by many 9/11 deaths. Although highly appropriate for the symbolic unification of the city and the comfort of mourners, we shouldn’t forget the neighborhood houses of worship that are helping the less visible victims. Attention to the widespread impact of 9/11 and its memories in the religious niches of the city helps us also to understand the city-wide religious impact of 9/11. Besides the attendance and membership bump that some downtown Manhattan churches got after the terrorist attacks, there were some churches in the far reaches of Manhattan that also grew. After the terrorist attacks, many New Yorkers sought answers to questions about the meaning of life, death and evil that could not be satisfied with the usual practical

Vincent Williams went from fireman to pastorman after 9/11

solutions.  As a result, they turned to a higher power. Churches across the city reported high attendance rates after the attacks.

Pastor Vincent Williams of Bethel Gospel Assembly in Harlem says it was evident in his church that people were seeking spiritual resolutions. “One thing that did happen is a lot of people turned to houses of worship,” he says. Attendance rose exponentially that month in Pastor's Williams church, although he did not know exact figures.  He could tell because all of the seats were packed. Pastor Roderick Caesar Jr. of Bethel Gospel Tabernacle in Jamaica, Queens said the same situation occurred at his church.

One reason people came is because churches quickly opened their doors to distressed civilians. Some churches, like Trinity Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and Bethel Gospel Assembly in Harlem, provided around-the-clock care for days after the disaster. Located 4 blocks away from the World Trade Center, Trinity Wall Street was a place where 9/11 recovery workers could find comfort and rest. Bethel Gospel Assembly provided emergency counseling and essential supplies, such as bottled water and food for Harlem residents.

Also little noticed, is that a 9/11 cohort was added to the population of religious leaders. Some individuals were so deeply moved by the experience that they exchanged their worldly vocations for that of pastor, priest or rabbi. Their motives to live a more meaningful life in helping people were like the motivations of the young people who rushed to join the armed services to defend our country.

On the other hand, some religious demographic trends were derailed. Because of new immigrant guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security, leaving and entering the country became more difficult for immigrants who fueled much of the religious growth in the city. The security concerns also have crimped the public expression of religion.

Williams is an example of someone who changed his profession to pastor as a result of 9/11. He was a veteran New York City firefighter with 17 years of experience. On that fateful Tuesday ten years ago he was driving to his firehouse, Engine 65 in Midtown, like he did every other beautiful New York morning. He was enjoying the lucid blue sky above him and the blazing sun reflecting on the hood of his car. His reverie was interrupted by a phone call. It was his wife on the other line. She called to alert him that the World Trade Center towers had been hit. She knew what that would mean for her husband. He would be going down there. Williams didn't waste any time.

With a gusto he arrived at the firehouse, but there was virtually no one there to share his enthusiasm to attack the fires. The firehouse was almost empty. Except for his gear, all the equipment, jackets, and trucks were gone. With the fifth alarm from the Fire Department the engine company had left about two or three minutes after 9 am to go to the North Tower. Like many other firemen that morning, Williams had to use his car as his emergency vehicle. He loaded up his tools and drove straight down FDR Drive. As he traveled down the road, Williams started to see the gravity of the situation. The police had closed off the entire highway except for emergency vehicles and personnel. Checkpoints were numerous. He had never seen that happen before! “They called everybody. They called all of us in!” recalled Williams.

Later, he found out that his engine company had reached the 22nd Floor of the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. By the time he got to a parking spot on the East River and walked over to the World Trade Center, the second tower had collapsed. The time was 10:28 am, and it was complete chaos. The command structure was either dead or scattered. “There was no one to report to. All you knew was that you had to get down there to help get your people out,” explained Williams. He knew that Engine 65 was already on the site, but he couldn’t find it. Two minutes after exiting the North Tower, the building had collapsed and the company scattered to find any place that offered shelter.

One battalion chief that was with Engine 65 recalled, “You could feel it coming, I mean, you weren't going to out-run it. At that point, we all split up.  I mean, it was like run, and each one of us took refuge behind something, and I wound up taking refuge behind an ESU truck.”

Williams met people with faces white as ghosts, covered in dust that coated them from head to toe. The particles of soot were so minute that even strands of people's hairs were greyed as if by a ghostly rinse. It was difficult to recognize anyone or find one’s way. Hurt and scared civilians looked at any fireman for directions for they didn't know what to do. The urgency was so great that Williams didn’t have time to think about being scared. In the distance a massive and heated mountain of bent up silvery steel beckoned him to save lives.

“The first place we went was on the pile, right on the pile. The idea was to get to an area where there was a hole or a cave, to see if you could get down there and get guys out,” Williams said. In fact one chief thought the men of Engine 65 were in the pile. A fireman recalls that the chief told Engine 45 “to go look for 65 Engine.  That's pretty much what we did.  We started climbing up through the pile and looking for 65 Engine.”

Then, a mayday went out that Building 7 was going to collapse. Everyone was told to evacuate. “The engineers didn't know for sure if the building was going to go down, but they thought something was going to happen,” said Williams. The mayday provided the first responders, who had been working for hours, a much-needed respite. Williams thought he would return to his car to recoup until called back.

He had gone a half a block, when he heard someone call, “Hey Vin! Vin!” He thought it was fellow firemen, but he turned and saw instead another member of Bethel Gospel Assembly. Mel Hazel, the member, was a police officer who was posted at the perimeter of the WTC. Standing in disbelief over the fallen towers, the two men conversed for a few minutes on the street corner. “All of a sudden, while I told Mel I was taking off to get some rest before I come back, we heard Building 7 come down. Ramp, Ramp, Ramp... just pancaking down,” recalls Williams. The ramp, ramp, ramp was the noise of the top floors hitting the one below as the building came down.

Aftermath. Reuters

They ran to seek safety from the debris. Hazel, without the equipment of a firemen weighing him, was faster than his friend. Fortunately, Williams found a parked SUV on the sidewalk and hid behind the vehicle. He prayed to God to bring him out of harm's way. “God, please – don't let this stuff tear me up,” he whispered.

The debris was cascading down the block towards his direction. A gray cloud of soot accompanied the rumbling building parts. Crouched down with his hands over his head, Williams closed his eyes tight hoping to stay alive. The dust finally settled and Williams found himself in one piece. “God was faithful in keeping me together,” he thought.

Building 7, which had caught on fire when the north tower collapsed that morning, fell to the ground at 5:21pm. After that, the first responders, including Pastor Williams, went back to work and “tried to help as much as possible.”

One might wonder if the first responders bear bitterness or hatred for the Muslims terrorists. Williams said that his approach is to remember how complicated is every human heart, including his own. “I hold absolutely no grudges,” the fireman-turned-pastor said. “We're very sad that that kind of evil can enter into a person's heart, but we understand it from a different perspective.” Williams’ perspective is also rooted in Christian theology. He said, “The scriptures say that the heart is so desperately and deceitfully wicked that we can't even know it.” The desperately wicked heart of man, according to the pastor, is not something that mere mortals should attempt to rationalize in some artificial moral judgment scale. Rather, the Christian should counterbalance the evil heart with compassion.

But can we maintain our own belief in a loving God in the face of such an event? Williams wasn’t willing to read into the event some message from God or about God. Rather, he answered by pointing to his faith in God’s reasonableness and compassion to him in the dreadful situation.  “My only reflection is that God has a reason for everything. Why God saved me from certain death is to [enable me to] serve,” he reflected. After 9/11, Williams decided he ought to serve God more directly through the church.

In 2004, Pastor Williams hung up his fireman’s hat and coat and put on the pastor’s Sunday suit. Williams wanted to get something straight. “I'm not a hero and I really want to make that clear. God protected all of us and he looked over all of us. The real heroes are the guys who went in to get thousands of people out of the building, to make sure those people were safe,” he said. In other words, Williams believes that the real heroes are the ones who gave their lives to make sure others lived theirs just as Jesus did. Williams' remarkable story offer us clues to how 9/11's anniversary will be approached by a religious man who experienced 9/11 firsthand.

To him, the anniversary is a time to commemorate the fallen heroes and to exhibit gratitude for being alive. In response to such an appreciation, Pastor Williams re-commits himself to serve God.

Our next religious site is an example of how 9/11 was a tragedy for the people far down the socio-economic ladder. In the World Trade Center and its environs the food establishment employees were often working class immigrants. Their religious centers are usually from downtown Manhattan’s center stage.

In West Harlem there will be a little noticed 9/11 ceremony for the working class immigrants who were victims of the terrorist attacks. Our Lady of Lourdes, a spirit-filled Roman Catholic Church in West Harlem, will be sponsoring a “Remembrance” for their predominantly Hispanics immigrant congregation who come Mexico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and other countries. Mignolia De la Vega, a church member for 26 years and coordinator of religious education, observes, “A lot of people don't realize it, but there were many Ecuadorians, Dominicans, Mexicans, and Nicaraguans in the event of 9/11, especially in the restaurants.”

She says that immigrant victims are not as visible to the public as the office workers and first responders. “Maybe the Latin Americans have been forgotten: a lot of Hispanics lost their lives.”

Fatima, who is from the Dominican Republic, cannot be in the sun too much because of the burns that she suffered. Oscar, who is from Nicaragua, survived with uncertain complications. Both Fatima and Oscar worked in World Trade Center area food establishments. The Hispanic workers in downtown came and went quietly. They didn’t draw attention to themselves. “Some are illegal immigrants,” De la Vega says, “and are afraid to come forward.”

Sonia Anderson, an Ecuadorian lady with a heavy Spanish accent, emphasized that the Lourdes congregation was working very hard to make sure all the immigrant victims are remembered and that their families are cared for. “We're going to pray for the families and hope it never happens again,” she says as she tightened her clutch on the tickets for the 9/11 Remembrance.

She broke off the conversation as she waved the tickets in the air to people coming out after Sunday’s service. With enthusiastic wrist strokes, she told church attenders that they could support the 9/11 victims and heroes by spending just $5.00 for a ticket. As she waved her tickets and said hello to acquaintances, she explained how much effort had gone into the Remembrance.

She said the memorial service will include the blessed sacrament, a holy hour, rosary, and a concert of prayer. And last but not least Anderson said you should come for the Mexican food! The event is an opportunity to raise money for charitable programs of the church, including free religious education for children, a bilingual program for Spanish speakers, and citizenship assistance for immigrants.

Some churches suffered an indirect impact on their ministries because of 9/11. The heightened security concerns of the city has limited religious expression in public places. Jaan Vaino, a leader of New Testament Missionary Fellowship, reports, “Up to a dozen years ago, any Sunday or Tuesday night, we could take our instruments, head out to campus and no one would bother us. Now, campus security (the church meets in a Columbia University building) would shut us down and say, 'You need a permit.' We were told that the administration had changed the policy.”

The city has also made it impossible to do spontaneous religious assemblies in public areas. “Since 9/11, we need to plan ahead and organize any outdoor events.” After his experience with the restrictions of public religious assembly, Vaino is now a champion for religious pluralism. “I would not keep religion artificially out of public life,” he said, “I would encourage public display of faith. Religious pluralism doesn't mean shutting up. All people are welcomed.” Vaino perhaps didn’t realize that a post-9/11 tract, “No more business as usual,” would be prophetic about the tightening restrictions on his church’s public expression of their religious beliefs. The effects of 9/11 remains a significant presence in New York City’s memory and society. Vaino is right, there was no more business as usual.

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  • The Spirit of the Lord is with them that fear him. 261788

  • Thank you for the informative article.

  • Thank you all. 9/11 was a defining moment in NYC history; how the event impacted the local and everyday level of life often gets overlooked.

    You can find another A Journey 9/11 article here:

  • Enjoyed this. Thanks.

  • Wow, you guys captured spiritual aspects of 911 better than anything I have seen!

  • I like how your website is showing the detailed textures of the city: spiritually; emotionally; socially; etc.

  • You make the invisible visible for me. Thanks.

  • Neat post pictures of Sonia and Mignolia! You go girls!

  • Nice story about Vinnie Williams. Thanks.

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