How the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero would benefit from the Presence of Clergy

You may have heard that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has organized the 10th Anniversary 9/11 Ceremony at Ground Zero in a manner that excludes prayer and the presence of clergy.  Perhaps, given that 9/11/11 is a Sunday all clergy are busy leading their congregations.  But that would only be Christian clergy.  Are there no apt clergy from other faiths available? Clearly something is missing.

During the ceremony, prayer will be relegated to the moments of silence marking the times of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Shanksville, PA as well as when the towers fell.  These moments of silence are very good, apt ways to mark those moments.

On the Gifts and Limitations of Silence

I remember 9/11/02 as well as I remember 9/11/01.  In March of 2002, 6 months after the attacks, I moved to New York City to work for the General Board of Global Ministries.  I remember the week leading up to the 1st anniversary.  There was a quiet but present fear of reprisal.  Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising came out.  I remember listening to 1010-WINS and learning about the preparations for the anniversary.  I decided to take the day off and go to Ground Zero, but I feared public transportation.  I had in mind that I would walk from 104th Street to Ground Zero, but as I calculated the actual distance, I thought differently.  I feared a suicide bomber would be in the subway.  So I began walking, but noticed all the people on the bus.  I climbed aboard and joined the strap-hangers.  The bus didn’t move.  People kept coming to the bus and squeezing in, no one said a word and the bus didn’t move.  Then, without notice, the doors closed and the bus moved…it was 8:46am–the time when the first plane hit the North Tower.  I was calmed by the calmness of the crowd.  So I got off the bus after several blocks and braved the subway.  I got on the red-line going downtown.  I squeezed in and grabbed a bar.  No one moved.  No one said anything.  No one coughed.  Others came running down the stairs in that oh-so-New-York-hope of catching the train before the doors closed.  They would squeeze in and join in the silence.  One minute, the doors closed and life resumed…it was 9:03am.

The moment of silence is classic and necessary.  But it is not enough.  All of us on that bus and all of us on that train were joined in silence, but there was no interpretation.  None of us said a word, and none of us spoke to each other when the minute was done.  Even the collective experience of acknowledging the worst day in our living history could not make us friends.  We participated but only by ceasing to do something that is at the heart of humanity–talk.  The moment of silence seeks to allow everyone to ‘pray as they see fit’.  But most authentic prayers are not silent.  Even when the Holy Spirit prays for us, there is the sound not unlike a painful groan.  The moment of silence seeks to recognize a commonality among us, but refuses to describe what that commonality actually is.  Silence can be intensely holy.  It can also be a cop-out.

A skillful clergyperson helps us all understand that actual commonality.  For a common spirit is too easily lost without a common understanding.

On Clergy in the Midst of Many and No Religion

It does not matter that those gathered at the Ground Zero ceremony will be of many faiths and no faith.  Skillful clergy negotiate differences everyday of the week.  Whether it’s comforting the agnostic son at his mother’s deathbed, participating in a mixed-faith wedding, speaking up for civil rights at city hall or serving mashed potatoes at the Community Kitchen, clergy, guided by the ancient wisdom of their respected tradition, offer the gifts of our trade to whomever is in need of them.  The vast, vast, vast majority of us negotiate these differences with grace, skill and humility.

So there will be moments of silence.  But how will we move together from those moments?

What Clergy Offer

Here are 10 things a skillful clergyperson would add to the  9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero:

  1. A skillful clergyperson can help us all recognize the common spirit present among the people and present a common understanding.
  2. A skillful clergyperson would help the people ACT upon and INVEST in the common spirit.
    • Why hasn’t the common spirit of 9/11/01 brought us closer?  Why are we as divided internally as ever before?  Because we did not act upon the common spirit borne out of 9/11/01 with a common understanding and we didn’t respond with a common act.  Some of us held candles, some of us counted ammo.  Some of us learned about our neighbors.  Some of us shot our neighbors for wearing a turban.
  3. A skillful clergyperson can speak to the grief that the nation as a whole is experiencing, can help us understand how this 10-year old grief is present in our lives and can encourage us on the path of collective healing.
    • Skillful clergy are adept at living with pain.  We join people all the time as they grieve, as they struggle.  With the wisdom of compassion taught by the ancient people, we know how to journey with people ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’.  Who will acknowledge the pain we still bear?  Will it be someone who knows what to do with it?  Most clergy know what to do with it.
  4. A skillful clergyperson would help the nation confess the sins that we have committed in response to the attacks.
    • The tendency will be to name the deceased and focus on the victims’ families.  I understand this tendency.  But a decade later, I feel it is inadequate.  It is, instead, a ripe time for reflecting on our response.
    • I fear there will be an implicit approval given to our nation’s response.  Will there be any acknowledgement of the fact that we have killed a lot of people, many children and many innocents in this quest for vengeance?
    • There is a need for cleansing, as well as healing.  We have responded to acts of hate and violence with acts of violence that feel rather hateful to those on the other side.  When we drone-bomb weddings in Pakistan without even saying sorry, we have clearly become too like our enemies.  Who will acknowledge this truth?  Certainly not a politician whose greatest fear is being defeated at the next election.  This is the role of clergy: to speak truth when it in necessary but unpopular.  (See Nathan in King David’s court).
    • There is a direct connection between confession and healing.  This has been taught and confirmed for millennia.  It is a basic and necessary matter to state that what bin Laden did to us was awful.  We state this truth at ceremonies every year in an innate hope that stating the truth is part of what will set us free.  That being the case, our freedom from this matter is not complete until we confess that we have sinned in our anger.  Unfortunately, we have a very hard time admitting that we ever do wrong, much less naming  the wrong itself.  Truth doesn’t beg its way into our lives, it will only set us free if we let it.
    • It is not a coincidence that America’s most notable period of spiritual cleansing was led by a clergyperson: REVEREND Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was, at once, prophet for black America and priest for the nation as a whole.  By prophet, I mean that he spoke God’s message of liberation to an unwilling nation.  He interpreted the sins of the nation as well as God’s better vision for the country.  By priest, I mean he led the nation in confessing our collective sin of racism and led us to a more godly society.
    • See also Bishop Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi.
  5. A skillful clergyperson will call us to live up to the highest ideals we have.  In a time of toxic divisiveness, this call is most aptly given by someone of recognizable moral authority.
    • Yes, there are people of recognizable moral authority outside of the clergy.  But being a ‘recognizable moral authority’ is one of the responsibilities of clergy.
  6. A skillful clergyperson would help us realize that the victims’ most fundamental identity is as human beings and NOT just Americans.
    • Our nation’s foremost religion is patriotism.  (Or maybe college football).  It is a false religion that reduces someone to their nationality and dismisses those of other nationalities.  Since the 9/11 ceremony will be led by politicians, who are expected to be adherents to the religion of patriotism, I suspect that we will hear a lot about the spirit of America and a lot less about the spirit of humanity.  I hope I am wrong.
  7. A skillful clergyperson practices the ministry of presence, which will definitely be needed at Ground Zero.  By ministry of presence, I mean that as the clergy person ‘stands in’ for God, she/he points to a higher reality.  For the religious that would be the presence of God.  But even for the non-religious a clergyperson’s ministry of presence points to the power of love over hate, of peace over war, of unity over divisiveness, of good over evil.
  8. A skillful clergyperson helps with existential issues of theodicy.  These questions (Where was God? Why me/us? Why does hate even exist?) are the elephants in the room at ground zero.  A skillful clergyperson helps us (both religious and non-religious) live with the unanswered and the unanswerable.
    • This is the clergyperson’s pastoral function, to be with the people in times of trial, to join another in pain so that they know that they are not alone.
  9. A skillful clergyperson mines the past for wisdom.
    • We are not the first people to suffer.  We are not the first to be terrorized.  Ours were not the first towers to fall.  Since the beginning of human consciousness, we have suffered.  And we have learned from our suffering.
    • Through suffering, Israel learned not to trust their chariots.  Through suffering, India learned how to creatively resist evil.  A skillful clergyperson does not speak as a single voice, but carries teachings that have stood the test of time.  That historical wisdom would be useful to the people at Ground Zero.
  10. A skillful clergyperson would save the ceremony from the scourge of cheap words.  Politicians major in mind-numbing platitudes and empty promises.
    • By contrast, Dr. King talked about Having a Dream…and then defined what that dream was: “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  
    • Tutu formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and led the arduous effort to heal a nation.

Anticipating Rebuttal

Anyone can do the things listed above.  Are you trying to say only clergy can do these things?

Sure, anyone can do these things.  By the same logic, anyone who can count can advise me on my family budget.  I’d rather have the best do that and so would you.  By the same logic, do we really want any old politician handling complex matters of the spirit?  Me neither.

We don’t have any MLK’s or Tutu’s these days.

Dr. James Forbes is no slouch.


I hope readers can discern the difference between a response and a complaint.  For clergy, our role in society is not always clear to others.  We have to explain and defend what we do.  At the same time, Christians should never be surprised when a government wants to shut us out.  When we start complaining because we didn’t get preferential treatment…well…then we have a problem.  For this matter, though, I approach this with a sense of sadness–that thousands will gather at Ground Zero, as I did 9 years ago, and not receive the best ceremony possible–all because one guy doesn’t understand what we do.

3 thoughts on “How the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero would benefit from the Presence of Clergy

  1. I appreciate your view on clergy being shut out of the 9-11 memorial. Your choice of the photo of Father Mychal Judge at the top of this post was ironic. I am sure he would be echoing your convictions. Well said.


  2. Thank you for this reasoned response. I agree: a pastoral presence is just what this ceremony needs. I am wondering about what kind of memorial will happen in my (new) home town. It’s pretty red around here. Your words prompt me to action.


  3. Well-done – Again and again when disasters strike, we as clergy are called to be there and respond. And we do that. When it comes time to remember, we are forgotten, even the ones who were there in the midst of the mess. But God remembers and that is what is important.


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