Reflecting on a decade of processing pain and aiding survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York City, Peter Gudaitis has no problem assessing the progress of interfaith disaster-recovery efforts and programs.
“This is light years ahead of where the nation was 10 years ago,” said Gudaitis, former executive for New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) and current director of National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN).
“Until after 9/11, New York City faith communities had not had a significant track record of working on programs together across denominational lines,” said Gudaitis. “It took that field experience from national disaster response agencies to begin to build a vision for working together for the relief period as well as for long-term recovery.”
Gudaitis cited Florence Coppola, UCC executive for National Disaster Ministers, along with Lutheran Disaster Response, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for sending their leadership to NYC immediately after the attack to help build relationships.
“Without them,” said Gudaitis, “we really, frankly, would have been in trouble. The UCC and VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) are not only trusted colleagues, but their counsel became a critical component in developing a long-term strategy for 9/11 recovery. Those relationships really took a quick learning curve.”
In the two years following 9/11, said Gudaitis, the critical trust, partnership and fundraising strategies for a long-term recovery organization were put together. The result was NYDIS.
“Ten years later, it’s the model for interfaith recovery collaboration in the country,” said Gudaitis, who left as head of NYDIS two years ago to lead NDIN. He remains an NYDIS board member.
“NYDIS has responded to many disasters since 9/11, including helping Hurricane Katrina evacuees in New York City, and tornado victims in New York in 2007,” said Gudaitis. “It’s supporting Haitian families evacuated to New York after the earthquake there, and has also developed many mitigation and education preparedness-training tools and courses now used nationally.”
Working with the Department of Justice and Mental Health Association of New York for the past several months, NYDIS is providing mental-health assessments for victims’ families and pastoral-care support to those returning to the city for the 10th anniversary, said Gudaitis.
NYDIS will co-sponsor an interfaith memorial service at sunset and hold a variety of forums at the Prepare New York Initiative, a coalition of interfaith and faith-based organizations holding 500 community gatherings citywide to talk about constructive pursuit of wellness for New York City.
One forum topic will center on the backlash against the Muslim community.
“Almost all of it is caused by outside influences,” said Gudaitis. “We’d like those people to focus less on New York City and more on what’s going on in their own back yard. It does a grave disservice to perceive the Muslim community, at any level, to be anything other than patriotic citizens.
“There is a small, determined, tenacious group of extremist Muslims,” said Gudaitis. “We know they exist. But to insinuate that they have significant influence over the American Muslim community is … enormously misguided.”
Gudaitis emphasized that national and New York VOAD groups are steadfast in embracing non-Christian, non-Jewish organizations. “They have gone to great lengths to include Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and other faith communities that have not traditionally been a part of disaster relief services. The Muslim community has contributed significantly in New York City.”
Gudaitis also lifts up the NYC 9/11 Unmet Needs Roundtable, a UCC-supported project that he called the “largest roundtable in U.S. disaster-recovery history.”
“Hundreds of case-management agencies and dozens of donor agencies have brought the resources of faith communities to the table to ensure that any 9/11 victim or any survivor family has the opportunity to seek out whatever entitlements were available to them. We helped over 6,000 families with almost $9 million from faith communities such as the UCC and Red Cross American Liberty Fund.”
The Rev. Martha Jacobs, a hospital chaplain and immediate past president of NYDIS, praised the organization for the expeditious manner in which it has served.
“The group has done a phenomenal job in the way funds and aid are dispersed to people in need,” she said. “It doesn’t matter their background, who they were, what they believed, what they didn’t believe.”
Jacobs served as chaplain for recovery workers at Ground Zero in the weeks following the attacks, and five years later led a support group of social workers helping recovery workers suffering from lingering physical or psychological wounds.
“The process has always been respectful of people and has cared for them,” said Jacobs. “We always strived for inclusivity and gave a voice – an equal voice – to those who don’t always have one.”
According to the World Trade Center Health Registry, the physical and psychological health of nearly 80,000 people, including recovery workers, is monitored on a regular basis. Somber anniversaries are sometimes triggers for setbacks, said Gudaitis. And with non-profit organizations lacking funds in a rocky economy, many families do without needed interventions.
“We don’t know what the long-term impact of those challenges might be with them,” said Gudaitis, “particularly young people and children who are forming coping mechanisms.”
The challenge remains daunting, said Gudaitis, but accomplishments have been substantial. “We can certainly look back and be proud of all that was done to support people’s recovery needs.”