Rabbi Carolyn Braun was exercising at her home in Portland when she saw the inconceivable events of Sept. 11, 2001, flash across the television screen.
Like rabbis around the world, she had been mulling inspirational messages that she might deliver at Temple Beth El during the upcoming High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She saw one plane crash into the World Trade Center, then another. In a few horrible moments, terrorists from the other side of the globe redefined the focus of her anticipated sermons.
“I remember jumping off my NordicTrack and thinking, ‘This is crazy,’ ” Braun recalled recently. “My first thought wasn’t that it was planned. That’s just not how I think. But as I stood there, the sound of rabbis everywhere tearing up their sermons was profound.”
Ten years later, Braun and other Maine clergy are reflecting on the religious and spiritual impacts of the Sept. 11 attacks on their congregations and communities. Some, including Braun, are participating in ecumenical services this weekend in cities and towns such as Portland, Westbrook, North Berwick and Auburn.
The services call to mind similar gatherings that happened immediately after Sept. 11. On the Tuesday evening of the attacks, about 150 people gathered for a spontaneous service at the Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church in Westbrook. A few days later, pastors of several Westbrook churches held an ecumenical service at Riverbank Park. About 500 people attended.
“It was not a bitter service,” recalled the Rev. Edward DeLong, pastor of the Westbrook-Warren church. “It was sort of confused and questioning, but hopeful.”
Today, DeLong and pastors of five other churches will host a 10th anniversary ecumenical service at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. The theme will be forgiveness and remembrance, based on Matthew 18:21-35 in the Bible:
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ “
“We picked that text partly because so much has changed since Sept. 11,” said the Rev. Kelli Whitman of Prides Corner Congregational Church in Westbrook. “We’re so afraid and ready to point fingers at people. Jesus asks us to forgive, even when we’ve been hurt. That’s the message we want people to remember 10 years later.”
Whitman was a high school senior in Harrisburg, Pa., when the attacks happened. She remembers sitting in her chemistry class, watching the breaking news on television, while her teacher continued with the lesson of the day.
“The whole thing was so surreal,” Whitman said. “It was clear our teachers didn’t really know what to do. I also remember there was a need in the community for people to return to church, which I think happens whenever we face something bigger than us.”
Her community’s reaction to Sept. 11 helped to inform Whitman’s pastoral studies. Still, she has no easy answer to the age-old question that is asked whenever tragedy happens: “Where was God?”
“God was in all of the people who were part of the recovery from the attacks, not in the violence or destruction,” Whitman said. “The first responders, the police, the firefighters, the doctors and others — they did God’s work. But I know that doesn’t satisfy those who lost someone on Sept. 11.”
Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, has helped parishioners wrestle with similar questions since Sept. 11.
“God has given a certain amount of autonomy to the universe. He doesn’t micromanage everything,” Malone said recently. “As human beings, we can use our freedom to do wonderful things or terrible things.”
Across the United States today, Catholics will be celebrating a Mass for Peace and Justice, recognizing the anniversary of the attacks. The horror of Sept. 11 offered two distinct lessons, Malone said.
“It reminded us of the profound evil that human beings are capable of, especially because it was so shockingly methodical,” he said. “But we also were reminded that whenever there is an awful tragedy, there is a great flourishing of compassion and goodness in response.”
Malone was auxiliary bishop of the Boston archdiocese in 2001. The attacks happened on his day off. He remembers driving through the suburbs of Weymouth and Braintree that evening.
“People had gathered on so many street corners, holding candles as a show of mourning, solidarity and hope in that terrible moment,” Malone said. “I remember feeling dazed and a bit breathless. The whole thing was beyond comprehension. I feel it in my gut to this day.”
Malone worried at the time about the impact of the attacks on Muslims in the United States. He recalled speaking with a Muslim cardiologist in the Boston area who was upset that any Muslim would hurt people as the terrorists did, but who also was concerned that all Muslims would be viewed as terrorists as a result.
“The real downside was the condemnation of Islam as a source of evil, which it’s not,” Malone said. “We had to fight that.”
Many clergy continue that struggle, including Mohamed Ibraham, imam at the Maine Muslims Community Center in Portland.
Since Sept. 11, many Muslims feel they are viewed as potential terrorists, Ibraham said, particularly when they travel and are interrogated by customs officials at airports and border crossings. The media often heighten anxiety among non-Muslims by focusing on the religious background of Muslims in the news, when their faith wouldn’t be an issue if they weren’t Muslim, he said.
“We remind people that one person isn’t responsible for another person’s sins,” Ibraham said through an interpreter. “We are all citizens or residents of this country and we share the grief of that day. Muslims should be good and responsible people, but we shouldn’t feel guilty or responsible for what happened.”
Immediately following Sept. 11, some members of Temple Beth El worried about the safety of Muslims living in Portland and volunteered to walk their children to school, Rabbi Braun recalled. She addressed the resulting climate of fear through one of her sermons for Rosh Hashanah. She struggled to put the attacks in some perspective.
“As a member of a people that has been persecuted, I immediately felt for the Muslim community in town,” Braun said. “As a nation, we had felt invulnerable for a long time and now we were exposed. As human beings, we often take fear and turn it into hatred or anger, but the core feeling is insecurity.”
Back then, Braun found her congregation to be unusually attentive and eager to hear her message. She focused on the holiness of the first responders and their efforts to conquer the absurd destruction wrought by terrorists who showed no regard for human life in the name of religious extremism. Her message hasn’t changed much in 10 years.
“People were hungry for what we had to say, for something to hold on to, something real, not ‘There, there, God will take care of everything,”‘ Braun said. “Now, it’s time to reflect on where we’ve come in 10 years and where we go from here. I’d like to think we’ve learned to transcend the fear and are able to honor one another’s cultures and religions.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: