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Manhattan churches open doors after tragedy

9/13/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) - Helping the walking wounded and providing sanctuary for prayer and hope, United Methodist churches in Manhattan threw their doors open following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center tragedy.

After the twin towers collapsed, Washington Square United Methodist Church in Greenwich Village opened its doors and telephone lines to crying, shaken passersby.

"Then the walking wounded began appearing - folks who had walked out of the 'ground zero' area," reported the Rev. Jacquelyn Moore in a widely-circulated e-mail message. "Their injuries were not major, but many were in shock. We set up water and some food…broke out cots from our homeless shelter so some could lie down. We set up a TV in the corner of the sanctuary so folks could get information.

"We didn't stop to count, but think that 150 to 200 folks came through. The staff and some community members of Washington Square Church are the best - they were here and worked and cried with folks."

Washington Square is a few blocks from St. Vincent's Medical Center, where both victims and rescue workers were being treated for injuries.

Another United Methodist Church, Metropolitan Duane on West 13th Street, is right next door to St. Vincent's. The congregation, led by the Rev. Takayuki Ishii, believes its most important role in the disaster "is to provide space to come in and pray." As the tragedy unfolded, "many of the St. Vincent workers came in for prayer," Ishii said. Since then, rescue workers taken to St. Vincent's for treatment have come in to pray as well.

Metropolitan Duane most likely will be used as a staging area for future United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) activities, such as grief counseling, in downtown Manhattan. The Rev. Paul Dirdak, UMCOR's chief executive, is part of the congregation.

The United Methodist church just two blocks from the World Trade Center, John Street, marks the home of the oldest continuous Methodist congregation in the United States, meeting since 1766. The present building at 44 John Street dates to 1841.

The pastor there, the Rev. James McGraw, was visiting a church member at St. Vincent's Medical Center when the towers collapsed. McGraw could not be reached by telephone, but it was reported that the church did not suffer any immediate visible damage, although it was filled with dust.

James Cardwell, a John Street trustee, said the congregation continues to pray for those who are suffering. "Many members of John Street are not allowed into the area and communication is not good," he wrote in an e-mail. "We fear for the welfare of our members, many of which live and work in and around the World Trade Center."

United Methodist churches further uptown also opened their doors on a day when many people were walking the streets because public transportation had been shut down. On the Upper West Side, the Rev. James ("K") Karpen greeted people outside the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. "We invited them in to stop and pray for awhile and talk," he said.

A prayer vigil that evening with Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, a Jewish congregation that shares space at the church, drew 500 to 600 people, according to Karpen. Together, the two congregations are planning to set up a free trauma counseling center next week.

At Park Avenue Church on the Upper East Side, the Rev. William Shillady, pastor, and the Rev. Bryan Hooper, associate pastor, stood outside in ministerial robes, inviting those walking by to pray.

"People would stop in their tracks and say, 'Yes, that's what I need to do,'" Shillady wrote in a letter to his congregation. "We had a steady stream of people. One young man, with tears in his eyes, walked by, then reached out and hugged me. Another father, with his daughter's hand tightly in his, asked for a blessing for himself and his daughter. That day our open doors meant more than ever before."

Like many other churches, Christ Church, also on the Upper East Side, has had evening services for members and others in the community who are searching for security and reassurance in the midst of massive tragedy. The Rev. Stephen Bauman, pastor, recalled how one of their newer members attending a Sept. 12 service told him about arriving at the World Trade Center just before the blast that rained down body and airplane parts around him. "He was just, obviously, shaken to the core," Bauman said.

Beyond the immediate crisis is a concern about pinning blame on people merely because of their ethnic or religious background. As a board member of the Partnership of Faith in New York City - which includes senior leaders in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths - Bauman has helped plan a Sept. 13 interreligious gathering at Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church.

"We felt it was extremely important to have a visible presence together," he said. On a more practical level, he added, "we're very concerned about …reprisals against certain populations in the city."

The Partnership of Faith was organized eight years ago. "We have always struggled with our mission, but we've always felt it was very important to get together nevertheless," Bauman explained. Now, he realizes, "we may have been together for this very purpose. Our friendship is, in fact, what our message is at this point."

Bishop Ernest Lyght of the United Methodist New York Annual Conference has called for a major prayer service for the denomination. The event, "A Witness of Hope," will be at 4 p.m. Sept. 16 at Park Avenue Church, 106 E. 86th St.

"Let us continue to be in prayer for the victims of this disaster, all emergency workers, all medical personnel, and the families that have been directly affected," Lyght wrote in a Sept. 12 letter to clergy and laypersons. "Let us pray for President Bush and his advisors, that they might rely on God's wisdom and not on their own. I urge you to keep the doors of our churches open for personal prayer and prayer vigils."

The conference also is working with UMCOR and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries to determine an appropriate response to the disaster, according to the bishop.

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*Bloom is director of the New York office of United Methodist News Service.

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