September 9, 2011

Clergy: Preserve faith in humanity

Determined to provide congregants with 'something to hold on to' in the face of 'profound evil,'

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "reminded us of the profound evil that human beings are capable of," said Bishop Richard Malone, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, seen here in his Portland office lst month. "But we also were reminded that whenever there is an awful tragedy, there is a great flourishing of compassion and goodness in response."

Tim Greenway Staff Photographer

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Rabbi Carolyn Braun

IN HER WORDS: An excerpt from Rabbi Carolyn Braun's sermon delivered Sept. 18, 2001, at Temple Beth El in Portland

"How could anyone or any group of people mastermind such a deadly plan?... As humans, we have been given the power to do good and/or to do evil. ... Absurdity is the situation where people have no regard for human life; where political thought, or even worse, religious thought, justifies the mass killing of innocent bystanders. ... It was only in the aftermath of the tragedy that we have been able to focus on what is holy. And, for me, at least, it has helped to conquer the absurdity ... People (are) rushing in from all parts of the country to help in the rescue efforts. ... The best of humanity is at work where once the worst of humanity tried to destroy life and living. ... Last Tuesday's tragic events, and this holiday of Rosh Hashanah, call us to examine the holy in our lives and to cherish it." Read the full sermon

Read the message from United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the wake of 9-11

 

 

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."

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