How Did 9/11 Change Urban Ministry?

With the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in mind, Christian leaders Jeremy Del Rio, DeForest Soaries, and Shane Claiborne reflect on how 9/11 changed urban ministry in America.

The Cross at Ground Zero.

 

Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, so we asked three urban leaders who will be participating in memorial events how the attacks impacted urban ministry.

Here’s what they said:

Jeremy Del Rio, Esq., New York

Jeremy Del Rio is executive director of Community Solutions, Inc. a faith based youth and community development agency in New York City. On September 10, Del Rio will participate in Reaching Out, A Sacred Assembly, a prayer and worship service in New York City.

September 11, 2001 exposed gaps in urban ministry in ways that could not be ignored any longer. The church’s response to those gaps demonstrated grace and hope and provided a glimpse of what might be one day.  For me, here are three lessons learned over the last decade:

1) The magnitude of the attack and the scope of its impact required a Jesus who was far bigger than any one ministry or personality to heal. It forced the Church to confront the sad reality that we were too disconnected from each other to be a useful partner to our city during a crisis. It’s impossible to mobilize 7,000 churches quickly when they aren’t already connected and coordinated, so the city didn’t call us initially for help. Pastors and church leaders had to repent for being lone rangers and intentionally link arms during the common crisis in order to respond effectively and be Christ to a city that was collectively grieving in unprecedented ways.

2) September 11 also exposed fear and bigotry among many Christians towards our Muslim cousins.  Suddenly, many who professed a love for Christ and people were parroting suspicions about our immigrant neighbors and perceiving threats where none existed. The Church had to embrace that Jesus’ imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves includes those individuals and communities we might otherwise fear, and wrestle with how to build bridges during and beyond the crisis.

3) The inertia of normalcy has obscured the need to remain vigilant in nurturing the kind of relationships that build trust across denominations and congregations, and with neighbors regardless of their faith and cultural traditions. My prayer for the Church on this tenth anniversary is that we would recapture what it means to love each other in such a way that the world will know we are His disciples.

To read more about how Jeremy and his father Rev. Richard Del Rio ministered in lower Manhattan post-9/11, go here.

Rev. Dr. DeForest Soaries, Somerset, New Jersey

DeForest “Buster” Soaries is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and a pioneer of faith-based community development who has also served as New Jersey Secretary of State and chairman of the United States Election Assistance Commission. On September 11, Rev. Soaries will speak at the September 11th Remembrance Service in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

I’m not sure the impact was greater in urban areas or not. The short term impact was to motivate people to think more about God, faith, and church. But long term, we have seen a return to a preoccupation with materialism versus a focus on God. The major ministry need that I’ve experienced and seen around the country is a greater need for focus on mental health ministry. We’ve added a full time therapist to our staff.

Black America has historically been the most optimistic and today all of the data describe African Americans as being more optimistic than the general population on the one hand. On the other hand, in terms of concrete expectations, we’re finding that there’s a greater sense of hopelessness and despair. The way that’s related to 9/11 is that prior to 9/11 our culture perceived itself as being almost invulnerable. What 9/11 did was begin a process of perceived vulnerability. After 10 years of being constantly reminded how vulnerable we are, it has begun to affect us emotionally and psychologically. The church has to create the connection for people between our emotional, psychological, and spiritual status.

While 9/11 was a terrorist attack, we’ve also been victims of a global economic meltdown and I would argue that our sense of helplessness in response to the economic meltdown is directly related to the decline in our sense of national self confidence. Prior to 9/11 we had this sense of “we can make it if we try.” In post-9/11 America, we have a sense of “there’s no way out.”

The economic crisis that we’re experiencing is probably more difficult to climb out of emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually then it perhaps would have been before 9/11. In 1987 we had a tremendous stock crash, but the general sense of the country was “we can make it through this.” Then in 2001, we had another traumatic decline in the stock market, but now what we’re finding is that the kind of optimism that would normally accompany economic decline seems to be accompanied by a general sense of pessimistic projection. I think 9/11 was the singular date when we began to question our ability to really manage our circumstances. The challenge of the church is to make the case that our psychological, emotional, and therefore poltical status, hinges on our spiritual strength.

Shane Claiborne, Philadelphia

Shane Claiborne is co-founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, a best-selling author, and a social justice/peace activist. On September 10, he will co-host Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream, a 90 minute variety show, with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen in Philadelphia.

My initial thoughts about the impact of 9/11 on urban ministry relate to the increases in military spending where we’re spending like $250,000 a minute. As the country goes bankrupt, it raises all kinds of questions. In our neighborhood, we can really see what Dr. King meant when he said, “Every time a bomb goes off overseas, we can feel the second impact of it right here.” We’ve got thousands and thousands of abandoned houses, a bankrupt school system, folks needing healthcare. The interconnectedness of that is really evident.

In addition, I think that what one veteran from Iraq called the “economic draft” has become a really urgent reality for our kids in the urban neighborhood here, where they’re selectively recruited. The fliers that they give out say, “Everybody told you to go to college. They just didn’t tell you how to get there. Join the Army.”

We have a drop out rate over 40 percent in Philadelphia. At a graduation I attended this year, they said more kids will be going into the military than will be going to college. That really struck me. The post-September 11 military ethos has grown and affected things dramatically.

This year we’ve got a mentoring program called Team Timotheo, where young men are mentored and  discipled by older men. It’s a football league that was started by guys in our neighborhood. Part of what we’re trying to do is to teach young people non-violence and out of it, deeply rooted faith in Jesus and the non-violence of the cross. We’ve got a homicide rate that is almost one a day in Philadelphia right now. All of that is very interconnected because we’re trying to teach kids not to hit each other and then they see this mess of redemptive violence kind of perpetuated all over the world after September 11.

There’s a kind of spiritual dimension to it. There’s an economic dimension to it. So those are all things that we’ll be talking about on Saturday. Particularly the testimony of the Iraq veteran, Logan. He’ll be sharing about his collision with the cross and the gun. Terry Rockefeller, whose sister was killed on 9/11, has said there was never a moment when she thought violence would be the answer or would solve the tragedy of September 11. Those are credible, important voices. We planned Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream before we realized it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but then when we realized it was, we decided that there’s no better way to honor those who died on September 11 and those who are continuing to die now than to try to celebrate the possibilities of another, better world.

*DeForest Soaries’ and Shane Claiborne’s comments were edited for length and clarity. Jeremy DelRio submitted his via email and those were not edited.

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.