Across the UCC
Edited by Carol L. Pavlik
Bethel UCC, Elmhurst, Ill.
In the wake of Sept. 11, our churches continue to bring together our communities—to cry, to pray and to feel the strength of God's love.
First Congregational UCC in Tempe, Ariz., shares a city block with a Muslim mosque. When the news leaked Sept. 11 that the suspected terrorists were Muslims, church members worried about their neighbors. Threatening calls forced the mosque to evacuate its childcare center. Immediately, the Rev. Phil Reller extended his care and support.
A spontaneous prayer service resulted, bringing together Islamic and UCC members under First Congregational's roof for prayer and meditation. Later, the two faith communities met in the adjoining alleyway, walking with candles and embracing each other. Reller hopes it is the beginning of a much deeper walk. There is even talk of removing the wall that separates the two buildings. "We want to make the ground on which we share our worshiping of God holy ground," Reller says.
Tensions in the city are high as the mosque continues to receive threatening calls. Still, Reller says he is heartened to see signs of support for the Muslim residents. A shrine of plants and cards from the community encircle the mosque. "We've got to work together as Americans," says Reller, "honoring each other's faith, believing our diversity is a strength."
Prayer helped by technology
As the crises in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania were unfolding on Sept. 11, Tammy Alvis, Media Director at First-Plymouth Congregational UCC in Lincoln, Neb., knew people would need the church, and knew just how to reach them. By 10 a.m., Alvis e-mailed and faxed a press release to area radio and television stations announcing prayer services at First-Plymouth that day. She also sent hundreds of additional e-mail announcements to church and community members. At noon, people were coming through the doors of First-Plymouth for the first of four prayers services. By the close of the evening, more than 250 people had stopped by, trying to make sense of the day's events.
On Sept. 14, when President Bush urged the country to join in noon prayers, Alvis cranked up her electronic media machine once more to get the word out. Again, more than 250 people attended prayer services.
"People were driving up, bewildered," says Alvis. One woman told her, "I didn't know what to do, so I just gave blood—then I came to church."
First-Plymouth's services were broadcast live on radio and television. To help the news agencies, Alvis asked the stations to tape the services. Several used clips later on in news broadcasts.
Alvis says the staff at First-Plymouth wanted to help, and credits technology for helping them reach more people. "We knew this was something we could do," she says. "Immediately, we got to do what we're called to do: comfort people."
Church members on 'front line' preach peace
The Rev. Mark Lukens need travel only a half mile from Bethany Congregational UCC in East Rockaway, N.Y., to the beach, where he can see the smoldering mass of twisted rubble where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood. Relatively speaking, his congregation was lucky: no lives were lost.
But for the many firefighters and emergency service personnel from his congregation, the tragedy reinvents itself each day during grueling 12-hour shifts as they remove bodies from the rubble. Lukens says he sees signs of post-traumatic stress and "survivor's guilt" in some church members, who find it hard to get on with living in the wake of the tragedy. "I read in the papers about people demanding retribution," Lukens says, sadly, but "I don't hear that from those on the front lines." One fireman he knows dissuaded his young son from enlisting in the Army, telling the boy, "I don't want any other fathers to have to dig up any more bodies."
Lukens says at times, the whole ordeal still doesn't seem real.
"I'll tell you what's real," he says. "The smell that comes from that site. You can smell death. I've never smelled that smell before, and I never want to smell it again. It makes you desperate to seek something redemptive. But as angry as I am, I wouldn't wish that on anybody. It's just too real."
Healing through getting to know each other
The Rev. Ted Newcomb, pastor of Trinity UCC in Mount Bethel, Pa., worried that the terrorist attacks would cause a backlash against Arab or Muslim people living in the United States. So he began a six-part series on Islam for Trinity's adult church school class to promote better understanding.
In addition, the Slate Belt Ministerium, which includes 32 churches from eight denominations, including Trinity, is arranging for Muslim representatives from the Islamic Center in Allentown, Pa., to visit local churches and begin dialogue between faith communities.
Newcomb says it's all about taking a proactive stance. For instance, when he learned of a nearby bagel shop owned by Muslims, he headed there to buy a dozen "justice bagels" to share with church staff. The shop has lost business since the attacks, and the couple who owns it told Newcomb they appreciated the gesture.
"We have to understand that extremists do not reflect their faith tradition," says Newcomb. "Maybe the work we do at the local level will ... open the door to greater interaction between interfaith communities."
Providing 'hope from the rubble'
The Sunday following the attacks, First Congregational UCC of Sharon, Mass., took an offering for the UCC's special "Hope from the Rubble" appeal for families of victims and survivors of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
The next morning, the money—some $7,500—was gone, stolen from a locked cabinet. After Boston area TV stations caught wind of the story and broadcast it, viewers from all over the state began calling the Rev. John Condon to ask, "What can we do to help?"
Then came the mail. A check for $5,000 came in from a man Condon had spoken to a few days earlier. Another check and a beautiful letter arrived from a Muslim man. Condon shared the letter with worshipers.
One envelope arrived with a $5,000 check from Yale Electric Supply Co. in Dorchester, Mass., and another for $2,500 from an employee's personal account, accompanied by a note expressing the wish to replenish the original $7,500 and "instill some faith back to your congregation."
All the donations will go to Hope from the Rubble, says Condon, who notes that the phone calls and letters are as much a part of the outreach as the money.
"I'm overwhelmed," he says. "These people want to redeem a real wrong and say, 'Don't do this. Don't interfere when people are trying to help each other.'"
To donate to "Hope from the Rubble," send checks, made payable to "Wider Church Ministries" and earmarked "Hope from the Rubble," through your conference office, requesting that it be sent to Wider Church Ministries, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115. Or go to the September 11 page of the UCC website www.ucc.org/911 and click the button to make an electronic donation immediately (Visa, Mastercard or PayPal only).
Send news, stories and photos of events at your local church to Across the UCC, United Church News, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115.