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How We've Changed - The role of religion
By Krista Tippett
Minnesota Public Radio
January, 2002
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In the days immediately following Sept. 11, spiritual questions seemed to be on everyone's mind. The president spoke of good and evil. People came together in public places to pray with those of other faiths. Houses of worship were full. But when the Gallup poll calculated the spiritual impact of Sept. 11 at year's end, it was hard to find it in the numbers. There had been a slight increase in church attendance - up to 47 percent from 41 percent nationally - but by December it was back to normal seasonal levels.

Lisa Poseley grew up in Minnesota, but has worked as a freelance graphic artist in New York for the last four years. On Sept. 11, she was making coffee in her kitchen 12 blocks north when she heard the first plane fly low overhead and crash into the first tower. A week later, Poseley showed up at a Salvation Army Center near her apartment and asked what she could do to help. Listen
(Photo copyright 2002, Lisa Poseley)

St. Mark Lutheran Church is a 103-year-old congregation with deep roots in the West Seventh neighborhood of St. Paul. It is historically a blue-collar church, which in the last two decades has grown more diverse in the age and socioeconomics of its 300 members.

I attended the last Sunday service of the year at St. Mark. Afterwards I was joined by 50 members of the congregation, aged 17 to 79, to talk about how Sept. 11 has affected their lives and their faith.

"That happened Tuesday, and it was Bible study night," recalled Jean Johnson. "You needed a place to feel safe, you needed something to hold onto, and when we came to Bible study that night, it was like coming home, and feeling safe. And Pastor Walt let us know that it was OK to be angry, because we all were. But to seek revenge was not OK, but to seek justice is."

At first people like Jean Johnson came to church for comfort and community. But they were also keenly aware of the religious dimension of the terrorist attacks. After a Sunday service in October in which Muslim Hani Achen provided an introduction to Islam, virtually the whole congregation followed him to the church hall for further conversation.

"That was tremendous for me at least, and changed my perspective totally as to how I view what happened to us," said Karen Pederson, who was among those who took part. "I saw this man that came to speak to us so earnest, and his message was so urgent, I felt. He looked exhausted. I think he had talked to many, many people in that week or two after the tragedy in New York."

Surely one of the most remarkable changes Sept. 11 brought to American religious life is a new interest in the Islamic faith. While news reports focused on fundamentalism and some random attacks on Muslims in this country, Americans were buying the Koran and biographies of Mohammed in record numbers. And non-Muslim places of worship around the country were inviting Muslims into their pulpits and their adult education hours.

"I knew that the nature of Islam was not was what the Taliban or what Osama bin Laden was expressing to the world," St. Mark Pastor Walt Wietzke. "And it was important that we make an evaluation of that ourselves so that we will not stereotype all Muslims. One of the most important passages out of our tradition is to welcome the stranger, and we had to do that in a very personal way. And that's why we invited Mr. Hani Achen to be with us that day as well as Mohammed el Gamel. And it was a way for us to learn about one another, but also to really elevate both of our understandings of who we are - and what decency is really about among people."

In the days right after the terrorist attacks, St. Mark member Dick Warwick took his need to know more about Islam a step further.

"On Thursday, I had heard a story about some mosques that had been firebombed out in New York. And on Friday I went and talked to my boss - and this was a very unusual thing, because I talked to her a person of faith - and I said that I really needed to take some time off work and go visit a mosque in the city of Minneapolis. It was a wonderful afternoon, and I stopped there all through the month of September and into October to make sure they had an area that was safe. And I think this Christmas is a new Christmas. And it is one that we can all believe in rebirth and a way of being able to prepare for the future. It's that belief in being able to express our religion freely, both from me to a Muslim and a Muslim, from them to me," Warwick said.

Dick Warwick's story of approaching his boss as a person of faith for the first time, it turns out, may be part of another change in American life caused by Sept. 11. Others at St. Mark say they too have experienced a new freedom to talk about their faith within their workplaces - from a construction company to a financial services institution.

Within this St. Paul congregation a couple of paradoxes appear.

First, the global terrorist event has made people more attentive to the basic decencies taught by their faith, like kindness to people around them at work and at home. Second, there is a new urgency to practice the depths of Christian faith while at the same time there is also a profound desire to reach out to other faiths, particularly Islam.

"What has happened I think since Sept. 11 is, we are more attentive to our own disciplines," says Pastor Walt Wietzke. And for some people it's like re-education - that in order not to be complacent again, we have to follow some of these habits, and we have to educate ourselves about what it means to be a Christian. I have a good friend who is a rabbi, and it's not that we try to change each other. But by him being a good Jew, it makes me a better Lutheran, and by my being a good Lutheran, it makes him a better Jew."

The biggest concern on the minds of the people gathered in that church hall on West Seventh Street on the last Sunday of 2001 was that, as Sept. 11 recedes into the past, its lessons might be lost.

"Isn't it sad that for so many of us it took Sept. 11 for so us to get to a point where we cared about learning about the Muslim faith, about celebrating our own Christianity?" said Susan Volkman. "While I think a lot of people are trying to embrace religion to find some comfort for themselves, I hope all of this is not short-lived. I mean, I hope money keeps pouring in, I hope we don't forget about people in that part of the world. And I think we had become a little bit self centered as a country and as people and maybe this helped open our eyes up again."

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