Written by Tim Kershner
The events of September 11 created many challenges for pastors. For the days and weeks that followed, emotions ran high: grief, anger, and frustration to name a very few.
"Individually, we all lost a chunk of denial that allows us to get up in the morning," says the Rev. Nancy Schongalla-Bowman, an ordained UCC minister and director of student counseling at Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary. The church has a role in helping to "see the rest of the world through God's eyes," she says.
While many pastors struggle to help their parishioners see that role, Schongalla-Bowman says that events such as these "create more fertile ground to explore" God's place in, and our response to, the world.
Schongalla-Bowman spoke with ministers of the UCC's Pennsylvania Southeast Conference at a conference on Oct. 16, "A World in Crisis: Where is the Church?" The conference provided a forum for reflection and sharing of the recent events and how to respond to the variety of feelings affecting parishioners. Also present at the event was Florence A. Coppola, UCC executive for national disaster ministries, who discussed the work of the denomination's "Hope from the Rubble" efforts.
"It was imperative for the Conference to provide a venue for pastors and church leaders simply to talk through their own pain and to learn, in face-to-face dialogue, what the wider church is doing in response to these tragedies," says Pennsylvania Southeast Conference Minister and President the Rev. Russell Mitman. "The day was an important step in the healing of the healers."
"We were all grappling with the faith context and justice issues," recalls the Rev. Dennis Hartman of Solomon's UCC in Bedminster, Pa. "Of course we will all rally around our country, but how do we keep that in check, that we realize we are [also] members of another Kingdom."
Like many churches, First UCC in Quakertown, Pa., participated in an ecumenical prayer service, in conjunction with a community effort, on the evening of September 11. Associate Pastor the Rev. Rebecca Stephens remembers a sense of deep sadness that day.
As she and Senior Pastor the Rev. Dan Moser focused on Sunday's worship service, Stephens says was "very concerned about the children" and relied heavily on resources provided through the UCC website in preparing her children's message.
She also offered to give a blessing to each child in the church, both to ease their anxiety and to express her faith that "we belong to God" first.
"I probably needed to give the blessing more than they needed to get it," she says. Still, she adds, one young girl who had not come forward for the children's message rose and came forward for the blessing.
"The church has a role in trying to help our constituents and members see ourselves," Schongalla-Bowman adds. "How do we stay working with our faith when these things happen? We are still charged to do what we can and not be overwhelmed by it."
Hartman agrees. "This is not the first and this won't be the last," he says. "I hope part of the church's witness will be dealing with fear and how our faith gives us tools to deal with our faith and our anxiety."
Tim Kershner is Director of Public Relations at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa. He is the former editor of the Pennsylvania Southeast Courier.