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Out of the Belly of the Beast. 9/11 and its impact on NYC’s evangelical churches

The churches near World Trade Towers in New York City were shaken but were able to give immediate sanctuary in “the Belly of the Beast.”

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Yours Truly, One Love by Jennifer Contini Enderby, 2010.

Forty years ago, just as the World Trade Center's two towers were going up, nearby Primitive Christian Church went down in flames. The disaster symbolized the decline of religion in the city. In a series of articles in 1975, New York Times’ Kenneth Briggs wrote that there was a “decline in the major faiths’ influence in the city.” Many congregations had closed down or moved out of the city. There was a question whether religious faith was doomed in New York City.

Businessman Marcos Rivera had gone to Primitive Christian Church since he was a kid. It was a Pentecostal institution among Puerto Ricans on the Lower East Side.

NYC used to be a tough place for religion. Little Italy/A Journey photo

Hearing about the fire, he came running back to discover that it was a smoking heap of rubble. As he stood contemplating the future, he decided to quit his job and work for the church’s rebuilding. Across the city, other religious leaders were making similar decisions to not give up.

Indeed, Primitive rebuilt and was flourishing by 2001. Religious groups in other parts of the city were also making a comeback. For example, a recent analysis indicates that 42% of the evangelical churches in the outer boroughs were founded between 1978 and 1999.

Church leaders described Primitive as a place where good teaching and the grace of God had built a people with a character that could stand hard times. It was tested again Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 by the nuclear-like explosion that flew toward the neighborhood.


The attacks and first responses

Rivera, now pastor of the church, was sipping his coffee that Tuesday morning. He had just picked it up at the Egyptian diner on the corner. On his way to Primitive Christian, he glanced over his right shoulder at the towers as he does every morning. "In the neighborhood everyone seems to do this," Rivera says. "We grew up with them being built and as part of our lives."

His son Matthew, 15, and his friend Phillip Santiago, 14, were safely in their school near the World Trade Center.

Marcos Rivera is a signficant leader in the "new wave" Hispanic Pentecostal leaders of NYC after the 1970s. A Journey photo

Tuesday seemed another normal day of shuffling and reshuffling the church's schedule.

Across the street, Rev. Nelson Santiago, Phillip’s father, was splashing some water on his face at the kitchen sink, which has a window framing the towers. As usual, his mind was checking out his to-do list for the day.

Terry Vega-Ramiriz, a staffer at Primitive Christian Church, was walking out of the subway at 9 a.m. when she saw a plane flying extremely low. "The plane was silvery and smaller than a big jumbo liner.”

Andrew Lee at Chinatown’s largest church, Overseas Chinese Mission, arrived at his office before 9 a.m.  and was seated in his chair organizing his schedule.

Rick Del Rio, the pastor of the Lower East Side church Abounding Grace Ministries, was midtown attending some meetings. He was just putting his toast into his mouth. As a construction company owner, he had helped build the World Trade Towers. His identity with them extended to his ministry Abounding Grace which had the Towers outlined in red on its trucks.

His son Jeremy was in Brooklyn walking out the door to go to work at a Manhattan law firm. Although successful, he strongly valued helping people and wondered if he was in the right profession.

The bloody ethno-religious conflicts of Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia inform Marislov Volf's view of 9/11.

Across mid-Manhattan from Rick Del Rio, Miroslav Volf, a theologian from Yale University, was finishing up a talk to the Annual International Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations  on the importance of the reconciliation with our enemies. He was closing with Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue” about the hellish hatred that sent millions of Jews to their “grave in the air.”

Mitch and Zahava Glaser had hustled their kids off to Hunter High School earlier in the morning and themselves  to work at Chosen People Ministries, an evangelism and training ministry of Messianic Jews.

That morning, New Yorkers were poised in wonderful ordinary moments under the blue skies.

At Primitive Christian Church Vega-Ramirez all of sudden heard “an explosion that sounded like two big booms."

Running to the church, which is within walking distance of the trade towers, Vega-Ramirez came in saying, "Pastor, the trade tower is on fire." Rivera wondered if she was joking.

"No!" he responded.

"Yes, Pastor, come out."

Santiago and his wife Angela had yet to notice the explosion. But they at last glanced at the burning tower outside their window. They were not concerned because they thought that the city would get the fire under control quickly.

Nearby, Overseas Chinese Mission nestled right next to the court and police headquarters in downtown Manhattan. The nine-story church building was shaken. Lee thought it may have been a caused by a construction accident with the huge cranes up the block. He didn’t think anything of it. Soon afterward, the church sexton came in to say that a plane had crashed.

Closer to the towers, the feelings were also placid. The High School for Leadership and Public Service stands pretty near to the towers. A smoky odor was beginning to permeate the school. Pastor Rivera's son Matthew smelled an odor like burning ink. His friend Phillip was on the next floor down, the 10th. His room had windows, but he too dismissed the smell. He thought that the papers flying around outside were another prank of a rival high school next door. He quickly returned his focus to the English class. He didn't want the students at the other high school think that they could distract him.

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Then the second plane hit. In a flicker of a moment the situation turned into a vital Job-like test.

Churches like Primitive Christian Church opened up as quiet sanctuaries for 9/11 victims. 911 Prayer Sanctuary/A Journey photo

Vega-Ramirez at Primitive Christian started to help staff members to open up their doors, set-up prayer groups and call for help. "People covered in ashes started walking in."

The sexton at Overseas Chinese Mission came in again to tell his pastor that a second crash had occurred. Lee recalls, “That’s when I figured I had to figure out what was wrong. I went to the top floor of the church” and “saw orange flames shooting several floors high out of the World Trade Center."

Soon after, a member of Overseas Chinese Mission who was also in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, came in with the eyewitness news that it looked like the second plane's attack had angled precisely to cause maximum structural damage.

Lee started to prepare the church to help refugees from the attacks. "Within forty-five minutes of the first crash, church people started coming in. They were trying to find a place to stay. They didn't know where else to go. People then started coming in covered and hacking with a fine gray ash that was in the air." The church provided phones, e-mails, and a television so people could catch up with what was going on. "In the shock of everything, they wanted to find out about loved ones. Several prayer groups gathered on our different floors."

The churches near World Trade Towers in New York City were shaken but were able to give immediate sanctuary to victims of the terrorist explosions from the area that would soon be called by many New Yorkers "the Belly of the Beast." Lee says, "The shock is lasting, but it doesn't immobilize you from thinking about the implications."

After the second Tower was hit, the windows "rippled like water” on Phillip's floor at the High School for Leadership and Public Service. Another student watched the ripple go from building to building. “It was as if the office building was a body of water and a rock has been thrown into it, causing ripples to spread through the surface. I was dumbfounded and was even momentary paralyzed.” Then, the students realized that the wave was headed toward their school. As the building shook, a teacher downstairs started screaming, "A bomb! A bomb!"

Phillip was terrified. When the teacher told the students to continue their work, he thought, "Forget that!" The girls started to cry; the guys were furious.

Matthew immediately started packing his Timberline bag. Turning to his best friend Larry Pitta, he yelled, "I want to get out!"

After an orderly exit from the school, the students were swept into the chaos of the streets. They stopped to stare at the burning buildings.

Uptown, Rick Del Rio dropped his toast, ran out and jumped on his big hog, a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. He recalls, “When the World Trade Center towers were attacked, I instinctively thought that that was the place where I could pastor effectively. It was personal. That's my building and those were our guys getting destroyed out there. On the way, I put on my pastor's collar and police identification tag.”

Going out the door, Jeremy heard about the attacks on his radio, so he turned around and switched on the television. “I thought I was watching a movie not a newscast.”

He made a short call to his father who said he was on his way downtown to the World Trade Center. His son felt as if his father was walking into “a really bad dream.” He prayed for his dad and began to think about his own future. But he wasn’t really too worried about his Dad. He had a life time’s observation of Rick under dangerous situations. “He is a guy you want in your foxhole when under attack. In a crisis he is most alive and on point.”

The Glasers and the entire Chosen People staff were watching the television. Glaser wondered if the day for the terrorist attack may have been chosen because September 11th is the anniversary of the Camp David peace accords. He also worried that Jewish places were going to be attacked.

After his talk, Volf started to leave the United Nations. “Then, some of the U.N. personnel informed us that there had been a major terrorist attack. As I got close to Grand Central Station, I could see a large cloud of dust in the distance.”

South Tower explosion

The South Tower had collapsed to be soon followed by the North Tower.

A range of emotions went through Volf: alarm, strangeness, grief and anger.  “I felt strange. I had been inside talking about reconciliation with our enemies at the same time that a terrorist attack was taking place and the World Trade Center towers were collapsing… I was also horrified and shocked by what happened. But then I felt we needed to go after them, that they needed to pay. Rage is natural first response.”

At Primitive Christian, Rivera ran out of the church. "There was a roar of weeping when I got outside," Rivera said. "I started yelling, 'Oh God, have mercy! Protect us!'" Rivera went back into the church pace up and down, thinking about his son and the other children. “I was weeping and crying, Finally,I got a hold of myself. I had always told my son to come home in such event and not be a spectator. I was pretty sure he would do that." Rather than search for his son, he decided to stay for his people.

"Then I clicked into autopilot. I started giving orders: 'Food, chairs, tables for the refugees!'"

Santiago and his wife were on their way to the high school but got blocked by police vehicles strewn like pebbles. They turned to each other. "We need to trust God," they told one another. Then they saw "a horror on faces with wide mouths." They turned around to see the storm from the collapse of the Towers.

"My God!" Santiago cried.

"Lord, save my baby! Save my son!" his wife prayed.

They fled before the wave of debris back to the church.

The two kids Matthew and Phillip were jogging south to the southern tip of Manhattan. Matthew was a little ahead of Phillip. Then they heard a long rumble. Phillip yelled, "Is

Phillip Santiago & Matthew Rivera retrace their escape path at Ground Zero. A Journey photo

that thunder?" They all ducked.

After the thunder they started to hear metal cracking. "You could hear something bending, and then a sound like the cracking of millions of pieces of metal. A huge gray cloud started rolling toward us. It became darker and darker as it got closer," Phillip recalls.

The teachers said to turn back north to an emergency area. But the teachers were unfamiliar with the area, so Matthew took charge of his small group, shouting, "To the church!"

By this time Phillip and another girl were alone. He started running with her and praying. "I prayed God would keep me, and for my parents, that the police would tell them to go back home."

"A huge, boiling cloud of smoke and debris came like a fast-moving flood down a tunnel toward us," Matthew recalls. He led his group south, then around the tip of Manhattan toward the east side, the farthest that they could get from the towers.

Phillip, meanwhile, was bent down, covered with debris. He and his classmate staggered away. But "the smoke kept getting darker and darker until at times I couldn't even see my hand.. . . We couldn't run fast enough, and my classmate and I were starting to have trouble breathing."

Phillip prayed, "God, show me the way." He recalls that he became calm and knew God was drawing him to safety.

Time photographer James Nachtwey caught the view of the collapsing towers from the vantage point of the kids at HS of Leadership & Public Service

He saw a green sanitation van and ripped open the door, shoving his classmate and falling in behind her. "It was a miracle it was open. God was watching!" he thought. "We caught our breath for a few minutes as the debris stormed by."

Throwing open the door, the two students ran some more. "It was very hot in the smoke, and you just felt your throat clogging up, even with a cloth over your face." They were struggling to see their way to the church.

There, Pastor Rivera was scrambling. "Get food! Get tables!" he barked. He took chairs and water outside for the refugees. He scanned the crowds for any sign of his son and the other children.

"I remembered the black pastor who had stood over a guy with outstretched arms during the Los Angeles riots. He was standing between the dead and the living. That was me. People needed someone to hang onto."

But Rivera was worried. Every 30 minutes or so, he would lock himself in his office to pace and cry out. "I did not see the walls or pictures," he says, during his prayers.

Across the street, the Santiagos felt helpless and despairing. Phillip's mother at one point prayed, "He is with you!"

"Then, my son walked in. Though he was snowy white, I knew who he was."

Phillip embraced his mother, saying, "I am okay! He was telling me where to go! God was telling me!"

A few minutes before, Matthew walked into the church with his teachers and students behind him, his hair filled with ash, pebbles, and concrete. He stood before his father amid a sea of people streaming by in silence.

The father reached over and hugged Matthew, and they wept. Matthew prayed his thanks.

Coming down FDR Drive on the east side of Manhattan, Rick Del Rio rolled through the smoke at Houston Street, then the ash piled up, beginning at the Fulton Street Fish

Pastor Rick Del Rio. A Journey photo-illustration.

Market. Rolling off the drive, he parked his cycle because there were too many obstructions for a cycle.

Right away, a cop came running up. "Father, can you come over here and bless these body parts?"

He had mistaken Del Rio for a priest, but he went over. There was a torso, a detached head, shoulders, and a leg all piled up. “I prayed with him, while cars exploded and burning papers floated through the air. All around us, cops and firefighters with looks of utter despair were running through the roar of noise and the awful smell.”

After praying, Del Rio joined the stream of rescuers. He had hardly gone a block when an Asian woman came running out of a novelty store, crying, "Please help me! My husband is in a wheelchair and trapped!"

The store was filled with ash and smoke, but the old guy still had a little fight in him. He insisted, "I'll be okay." Of course, he wasn't and he couldn't move his wheelchair through all the ash, debris, and fire hoses.

Del Rio told him, "Don't even try! You can't get there by yourself. Let me try." It was tough to get him out, but they made it over to a safe zone.

Del Rio joined up with some cops from his home precinct, the Ninth. They were trying to dig out a police van so that they could drive to the World Trade Center site. “We used bottled tea to clean the windows and [bottled] nectar to fill the radiator. We got it going and made it to pretty close to the site. There was just utter devastation on the way. A bridge had fallen on a fire truck and had crushed it down to 2 feet high.”

They hopped out and struggled through the ash and smoke. On the right was the cemetery of St. Paul's Church. “Some of the tombstones had been blasted down, and all around them were little fires like burning bushes in the cemetery. There were men's and women's shoes scattered around.”

The pastor noticed other religious landmarks that had been blasted. “I also passed my friend's church, Faith Exchange Fellowship. It was in a building next door to the Marriott Hotel. A fire was raging in it.” The pastor Dan Stratton survived.

Del Rio flowed with hundreds of rescuers to what became known as “the Pile” to find anybody moving or hear any sound. “There just was not time to think, but I kept praying to myself.”

“It was an indescribable and pathetic sight. Someone would call out, ‘Move this!’ Someplace else on the Pile, another person would cry, ‘Over here! Bring a ladder!’

A crown of thorns for NYC. Photo

Sometimes, when we pushed a big piece of metal over, fire would come whooshing out. It was hard to listen for cries of survivors because of the roar, yelling, popping, and the sloshing of the fire hoses.”

And they couldn’t find anyone. There wasn't anyone to be found.

So, Del Rio went back to the morgue, which was being set up in the Brooks Brothers clothing store. Unbelievably, some of the dummies were still standing in the windows. They were elegantly dressed, with their shoes laid out, and all of it was covered by the white ash from the death of the towers.

Inside, there was one body in a dark green bag laid off to the side. Del Rio lent a hand to people who were trying to clear out space. The pastor was wondering what could he say, what could he do to help?

There was no joking around and little conversation. Del Rio realized that the rescuers really just needed someone to be there. “So, I thought, That is what I'll be, a presence and a symbol that God is present and available. I kept praying to myself for everyone.”

He learned that in that desperate situation to make the prayers simple “so that the men and women could remember and repeat them later.”

By the afternoon churches were checking on members who worked downtown. For example, Redeemer Presbyterian Church had many attenders who worked in the World Trade Towers. Church leaders were particularly concerned about members who were working in the twenty two floors that Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the investment firm, leased in the South Tower. By late Tuesday afternoon, Redeemer's pastor Tim Keller reported that he had not yet heard of anyone from the church among the killed. It turns out that the head of security for the finance firm was prescient in immediately evacuating the employees. Only 6 of the firm’s employees, none from Redeemer, were killed by the collapse of the building.  Later, the chairman of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter likened security director Rick Rescorla and his helpers to “the Good Shepherd in the Bible, looking for the one sheep missing from a flock of a hundred.”

Glaser  of Chosen People recalls that his group also spent the day tracking down personnel and their children to make sure that they were safe. They then sent medical doctors

Two peaceful opponents, Mitch Glaser, left, debates an Orthodox rabbi who argues that Jews should come back to Judaism. < A Journey photo

and nurses to help at downtown Beth Israel Hospital and offered help to a nearby synagogue.

All through the day, people gathered spontaneously to pray. Churches opened their doors for people to pray and various ministry groups all over the city went out on the street to offer prayer, rest and comfort.

Churches like Primitive Christian Church and The Bowery Mission near the World Trade Center area and Marble Collegiate a little further uptown sent people into the streets to tell people fleeing the disaster area that they could come to rest, refresh and pray.

Here's Life Inner City of Campus Crusade for Christ set up a prayer station at the Queens end of the 59th Street (Queensborough) Bridge. Cars were banned and the bridge was filled with people fleeing NYC. They offered to pray with anyone that wanted to stop and pray. "We put up a sign saying, 'Free prayer,' Kleinknecht said, "People were respectful and many stopped. They didn't want to stay long but they prayed and took some literature." Several other groups also put up prayer stations around the city.

Prayer services were held Tuesday night by several churches, including Primitive Christian Church, Central Baptist Church, and Emmanuel Presbyterian Church.

On the steps of Columbia University, about 150 people gathered at 6 p.m. to hear Charles Drew of nearby Emmanuel Presbyterian Church reassure them that the Lord is in charge in the midst of the upheaval. "You should exalt Jesus while the nations rage," Drew told them. "God is in charge, and in the end we have hope."

They came just as they were: out of the dormitories in jeans and khakis, in suits and white shirts and conservative dresses from downtown, and some with ashes still flaking off their shoulders. They huddled behind the protective walls in the great quad of Columbia University and shared their stories of fleeing down the streets, calming the traumatized and waiting in line for hours to give blood.

The Riveras formed a circle in their bedroom to thank God. Rivera closed, "Our goodbyes should be with the knowledge that life is fragile, and we won't always see each other again." Upstairs, the Santiagos looked at the dark clouds where the World Trade Center towers had stood. The father said, "We have to look for someone higher than the 110th floor."

On Wednesday Rick was joined at the catastrophic site by his son Jeremy but they didn’t see each other. The son walked out onto the rubble praying and began to mull over changing from corporate law to ministry.


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Organizing responses

Jeremy & Rick Del Rio, Marcos Rivera, right. Photo

On Wednesday evening, the Del Rios and Rivera of Primitive Christian Church met at Abounding Grace Church in the East Village to discuss about what needed to be done. Jeremy told his dad that God had shown him that now was the time to leave law for church ministry. Rick asked his son if he was sure and if he could take care of his family. Assured, the father asked his son to help organize the clergy.

Together with Rivera and some others, they founded a new organization called Ground Zero Clergy which eventually became the Northeast Clergy Alliance. The ad hoc nature of their response was similar to meetings at World Vision, Salvation Army, Campus Crusade for Christ, Southern Baptist Convention and others that CT visited that and the following days. The organizing helped to lay the foundation for relationships for future ministry in the city.

The organizational efforts built upon two decades of the multiplication of churches and the emergence of new ministry networks. Many new churches had grown up in the city since 1978 and local church leaders had been building new alliances through organizations like Here’s Life Inner City, Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York, and an incipient church-planting effort by Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Most didn’t realize the scope of the changes until after 911 brought them all together.

911 brought about 8% increase in members in some evangelical churches on Manhattan. Since 2001, the churches have continued to grow at a fast pace. 40% of the 205 evangelical churches in central Manhattan were founded after the bombing of the World Trade Center.

Congregational growth may have also been spurred by a new wave of marriages. Some churches reported the performance of more marriages than ever. Charles Drew, pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, reported that he "married a ton of people" in the year after 9/11. He cited Sherman Lee, a New York police officer who had thought he was going to die in the collapse of the North Tower. His long-time girlfriend thought so too. When he survived, the pair renewed their faith and deepened their relationship to the point of marriage. Lee says, "I realized that you got to do things. Time is short."

The catastrophe pushed the new networks toward each other. People who had not spoken to each other for years, started praying together. The evangelicals started to recognize each other and to realize that together they could be a rising force for good.

One result is that they felt confident to push back at national evangelical leaders who came to interpret NYC’s needs. When Campus Crusade for Christ’s president Stephen Douglas in the ministry’s Florida headquarters sent the copy for a booklet of encouragement to be printed and handed out to New Yorkers, NYC leaders told him that it was out of touch with the city’s current realities. Their insistence was unprecedented. Instead, they wrote the copy for the booklet which Douglas accepted.

In the process NYC evangelical leaders started moving into national attention. Most notable were Reverend Tim Keller, who was relatively unknown in 2001. Reverend A. R. Bernard proclaimed the new sense of self-confidence of NYC evangelicals at the Billy Graham Crusade in Shea Stadium in 2005 when he said, “We are not storefront churches anymore.”

National evangelical organizations were unfamiliar that a revival had been taking place in New York City. Most national church leaders and almost all church planting

Franklin Graham built relationships with NYC evangelicals with visits @ Billy Graham 9/11 Prayer Center in Harvest Christian Fellowship, 130 W 56th St. A Journey photo

agency strategists still believed that NYC was a secular Sodom and Gomorrah that was the graveyard of church planters. Franklin Graham said at the time, “I came to NYC because we knew that there were no Christians here and that someone had to help.” He was not alone in his understanding. After 911, this attitude changed dramatically. Franklin and his father Billy Graham started to pay more appreciative attention to the city. Sometimes, a crisis brings recognition of facts previously unknown and a building of relationships that never had existed before.

As ministry and church leaders poured into NYC, they discovered that a fast-growing church had planted itself in the hardscrabble city. The result was that denominational and evangelism leaders started making plans to invest massive efforts into the city.

The New York catastrophe also pulled Christians from around the world to NYC as a destination of Christian ministry.

At Australia’s Hillsong church 911 hit hard. Paul and Andi Andrew were shocked by the terrorist destructions in NYC. Andi was in bed at the Hillsong Bible college when someone knocked. Andi recalls the moment, “and I’ll never forget. ‘A plane has flown into one of the World Trade Towers,’” her friend said. Sobbing, “it hit me like a ton of bricks. I so badly wanted to be home in that moment, doing something. I remember the next day all of the American college students gathered to pray.”

A few years later, Andi was again thinking about New York City. “I woke up from a deep sleep having just had what seemed like a crazy dream,” she recalled. She found herself riding the subway in a strange new world – New York City. They resolved that they would one day come to NYC to plant a church, which they did in January. Carl Lentz and Joel Houston, also of Hillsong, planted a church last Fall.



So far, notable theological reflections on 911 are scarce, but it may be too soon to tell. Pastor Pete Scazzero, whose ministry New Life Fellowship in Queens specializes in reflecting on life’s pains, says, ‘The Christian of the city didn’t have a well-developed theology of pain and grief to process the event.” American Christians, he believes, are so focused on “pragmatism and how to have a better life that grief and loss are counterintuitive to them.”

Artist Mako Fujimura personally experienced the fiery furnace roaring and burning only a few blocks away from his home. Afterwards his fiery reds and gold that drench his paintings with strands from the Book of Revelation and God’s presence amidst hopelessness took on new meaning. He recalled, that “through the very sound of disintegration,

Painting @ Abounding Grace Ministries. A Journey photo

I also hear the refracting voices of eternity. Art may be, at times, the only true memory we own in our experience of disintegration.”

There were also a number of popular artistic expressions on the streets and in churches.

Theologian Volf has counseled a forgetting of wrongs in order not to carry hatreds forward into our faith and lives. Notably, he has urged Christians to form better relations with Muslims. In his most recent book Allah: a Christian response he wrote that Christians and Muslims really worship the same God, so they should be more tolerant of each other.

Immediately, Keller started to discuss the need for churches to help respond to the real hatred for the terrorists. "If those towers hadn't come down, I think it would have been different. The coming down was much more horrific and will forever stand for an intrusion, a hostile attack." The pastor said that New Yorkers would viscerally feel the horror for years. "It was satanically brilliant. Now, every time you see that empty space you will not be able to put it out of your mind. I felt a hatred well up in me, so I thought, well, we are going to have to deal with that too."

Keller preached a half-dozen sermons on 9/11, including his “Sermon of remembrance and peace for 9-11 victim’s families” at the fifth anniversary memorial at the White House.



Evangelicals were forced to deal with Muslims who are neighbors. Soon after 9/11 President George W. Bush had proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace” as a reason for tolerance. Volf and Keller also urged forgiveness and distinction between different types of Muslims. But not all were persuaded.

But NYC evangelicals didn’t know Muslims too well before or after the terrorist attacks. They knew that a Brooklyn sheik was in jail for plotting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1995. Some local leaders felt that 9/11 revealed the true hearts of their neighbors. Jeremy Del Rio recalls his shock at some of the harsh attitudes, “It was startling to me how many evangelical leaders that I knew personally had bad things to say about Arabs.” There was a generational gap.

Jeremy’s father was concerned that the Muslims were insensitive with their plans for a Ground Zero mosque. “The controversy opened up old wounds,” Rick says. “I think there might be an ulterior motive. It wasn’t pure.”

Evangelicals naturally feel close to Jews and Israel, and the Muslim-inspired attacks threw them closer together. For the first time evangelicals in the city started to meet with the NYC Board of Rabbis. Further, some city evangelicals believe that 9/11 revealed to them that Muslim state in Iran is the next big threat to their hometown. They have united with supporters of Israel to call upon the United States government to prevent the Iranians from attacking. Charles Stetson, a successful local businessman and social entrepreneur, says, “We have got a nation with nukes that wants us to be annihilated.” For Stetson and others “9/11 means Iran.”

However, most evangelicals seem to sympathize with Muslims’ right to worship freely wherever they want. During the Ground Zero mosque controversy, A Journey interviewed many evangelical church and ministry leaders who simultaneously were skeptical of the mosque builders’ motives and supportive of their right to do so. The younger leaders were more concerned about getting to know Muslims better and to work with them.

Rick Del Rio’s son Jeremy took a somewhat different lesson from the Ground Zero mosque controversy that he wanted to learn more about Muslims. His interest had started with 9/11 and deepened as he interacted with the Muslim parents and students at his son's school. He learned much more about his Muslim neighbors than he had before, even though his home in Bay Ridge is surrounded by the fastest growing Muslim population in the city.

Last spring, he gathered evangelicals, Muslims and others to paint a mural together at their local public school. Since 911, Jeremy has lead 20/20, an effort to match-make churches and public schools. So far, he has matched 200 churches with 200 schools.

For the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, he will speak at a Bay Ridge evangelism gathering about the need to understand how the Arabic narrative is part of the Biblical narrative. He is planning to tell a story of a kid Ishmail who was “kicked to the curb” by his father Abraham. In contrast God didn’t abandoned Ishmail and promised blessings to him and his offspring who are today’s mainly Muslim Arabs. Del Rio intereprets the role of youth in the Arabic Spring, the recent democratic movements in the Middle East, as God’s blessing to Ishmail.

“We have to be more like God, engage our Muslim Arab neighbors better. Abraham’s kid Ishmail is participating in his own blessing from God. We should be there for him with the fullness of God’s blessing.”


Abounding Grace Ministries is putting on a 9/11 Remembrance on September 10, 2011, from 3-7 PM at the East River Park Amphitheater in NYC, “Reaching Out: A Sacred Assembly.”

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