The September 11th attack
It's Sunday and faith is riding high
By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer
It seemed much of the country was already there when the Rev. Billy Graham called for a resurgence of faith on the National Day of Prayer after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Whatever the reason a need for answers, the promise of unconditional love, tradition many O'ahu places of worship have experienced a dramatic rise in attendance since that menacing day.
Conversions are up. More people are seeking direction from religious leaders. And those who offer that guidance feel the burden of consoling fearful people and preaching forgiveness to congregations desperate for justice.
"People who have not been regular for a couple of years have been front row and center" since Sept. 11, said Mari Gabrielson, the minister at Unity Church at Diamond Head. "Sunday has almost doubled. We're putting chairs out at the ends of rows and in the lanai."
But that's not all. Gabrielson said she's received as many as 24 calls in a single day requesting personal counsel about the tragedy. Others come to the church during the week to meditate. Sales in the bookstore have risen. Authors like Deepak Chopra, she said, are in particular demand.
"Lots of people looking for answers," said Gabrielson, who presides over a congregation that includes Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, as well as members of mainstream Protestant faiths.
So how does she address this new, captive audience?
As both a spiritual leader and someone who lost two brothers in Vietnam, she speaks to the grief, fear and anger, and advises people to be more gentle with themselves. When they ask about God's role in all of this, she answers: "Despite all appearances, divine order is at work. God was finding alternate paths for 30,000 people who normally would have been at work (at the time of the attack, but were elsewhere).
"The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives, and the strength and willingness of others to come their assistance."
Michael A. Henderson, the pastor at New Life Body of Christ Church in Wahiawa, said attendance there has increased slightly. He presided over at least five conversions each week double the number before Sept. 11.
"I do feel an awesome responsibility that people are looking to the church for answers," he said. "Not just responsibility, but a burden" to have those answers, and "to win souls for the kingdom of Christ."
The goal in his sermons and counseling is to encourage people in what he defines as "a spiritual war." He said he had been telling his church for a long time that God was trying to point people back to him.
"I believe God is allowing this crisis to bring us back to where we should have been from the beginning (in a state of togetherness). "We are now humbling ourselves and seeking his faith."
Shinkai Murakami, resident minister at Pearl City Hongwanji Mission, said attendance in his Buddhist congregation rose a little. He is careful to promote peace by saying, "If we go anger against anger, it's going to create other problems."
Leaders are preaching a new message in mosques, said Rashid Abdullah, information officer for the Muslim Association of Hawai'i.
"It's a message of tolerance and understanding, and also getting out there and doing something," said Abdullah, who said that attendance fell slightly the first week, but since then has gone "right back up."
Dean Kouldukis, pastor of the parish at Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific, in the Punchbowl area, confirmed that "attendance is definitely way up."
Not only does he affirm people's conflicting emotions in his sermons by reassuring them that "God understands those feelings," he also has attempted to address the pervasive fear he sees.
"We cannot live in fear," he said. "We have to trust God," Kouldukis said. "If we live in fear, then we've quit living, and that certainly isn't what God would want."
Father Randy Roche of the University of Hawai'i Newman Center said more people of all ages have been attending the Catholic church on campus.
"There's some heightened need to take care of relationships and make sure they're healed," he said. He also has noticed "more concern for the basics of spirituality."
Pastor Duane McDaniel said attendance has increased at Hawai'i Kai Baptist Church.
"We've seen people who are reaching out and searching for answers and looking for hope, and interested in where God is in all of this," he said. "There is a pressing need for me on a weekly basis to address a lot of different dimensions of this: emotional, spiritual, and to encourage people to reach out to others. I think that's the antidote to terrorism. Expressing the love of God in tangible ways."
In his sermons, McDaniel acknowledges people's desire for justice. People may find it comforting to know that even if it doesn't happen in our lifetime, he said, "one day God will set everything right."
But he also reminds the congregation that nobody has the moral perfection to stand before God, and that everyone needs forgiveness.
Rabbi Stephen Barack of Temple Bet Shalom in Honolulu said he consoles people by saying that "the evildoers will be punished."
This, he reminds them, is vastly different from indiscriminately killing innocent people. Justice takes time and patience.
Pastor Wayne Cordeiro of New Hope Christian Fellowship tried to answer worshippers' questions about how God could allow this.
"You see, God made us free," Cordeiro wrote in his first sermon after the attacks. "He made us free to do good, or to do evil. He gives us his laws and his Spirit to guide us. But ultimately, the choice is ours to make. He created us that way.
"In a world of free choices, God's will is rarely done. Doing our own will is much more common. Don't blame God for this tragedy. Blame people who ignored what God has told us to do."
According to Carol Ann Shima, New Hope's administrative secretary, nearly 1,000 more people attended services at Farrington High School the weekend after the tragedy, bringing the total to nearly 10,000 people. In September, Cordeiro presided over 500 conversions.
At St. Andrew's Cathedral downtown, "all the services are experiencing an increase," said interim pastor Richard Vinson. The noon service Sept. 14 drew 600 people.
"I found that to be both overwhelming and awesome," said Vinson. "It gave me the profound sense that when push comes to shove, the church still has something to offer."
Vinson also has counseled people more than his regular, usually administrative, routine allows.
"I don't remember any one event or time when folks came and said, 'I don't even know why I'm here, but I just need to talk to someone,' " he said. "It's shaken people to the core, and they don't even know why."
People continue to pursue guidance on the act of forgiving.
"Forgiveness is never saying that it's OK," said Vinson. "Horrific acts are just that."
The expression "forgive and forget" implies denial rather than forgiveness. True forgiveness, he said, "has to do with 'I am no longer going to be held captive by what you did to me. I'm not going to continue to be wounded by you. I'm moving on.' But that takes time."
Not all congregations, however, have sustained the apparent spiritual renewal. At On the Rock Apostolic Church in Wahiawa, Pastor Raul Chavez said that "immediately after the attack, attendance went up ... but now they've lost that immediate fear, and they're going back to their old way of life."
He believes that many are still in denial, believing that "it won't happen to me, it won't happen here."
Vinson hopes the spiritual revival that he has witnessed will last. But he recognizes that people tend to transform only temporarily.
"We're not forever changed by the misfortune of others," he said. "We're empathetic and we feel bad, but to really transform the human heart, it has to get personal."