On September 11, 2001, two things became evident first to many of the Brooklyn, N.Y., clergy shortly after the hour-long dust cloud that formed from the World Trade Center Twin Towers collapse vanished, the former president of an interfaith group said.
First, members of the Brooklyn Heights Clergy Association realized they needed to help account for missing people for their loved ones. Secondly, they needed to facilitate prayer services as soon as possible, the Rev. Fred Wooden told The Christian Post.
Wooden, who is a Unitarian, was the president of the association and leader of the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn at the time of the terrorist attacks on the United States. Unitarianism takes its name after the understanding of God as one person, rejecting the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and belief that Jesus is fully man and God.
The former Brooklyn Heights Clergy Association president said the need for people to connect on that tragic day was evidenced by impromptu church services of several faiths and denominations held that night.
Currently serving as the reverend of a liberal, non-denominational church in Michigan, Wooden was recently interviewed by a local TV station in Grand Rapids about his recollection of the fateful day. He had lived and worked less than a mile from the World Trade Center and was able to witness much of the tragedy as it unfolded outside his living room window, he said.
“We made an enormous amount of phone calls to find out who was where. It turned out that because of the collapse of the towers that some of the telephone lines were not working and some of the cell phone towers were not available,” Wooden said. “We ended up being a switchboard. We took messages and passed them on to our families in Brooklyn. That was our first function: to find out what we could about the people in our churches.”
Wooden said the next order of business for himself and other faith leaders was to organize “impromptu worship services.”
“We prepared a service largely of prayers and of music as far as we were able to. We improvised everything,” he said. Two volunteers from the area offered to help lead the service, including a Jewish Rabbi firefighter chaplain and a rock musician singer.
“Appropriately, the singer sang ‘There Must Be a God Somewhere,’” Wooden said. “It really expressed our anxieties about whether or not the world was falling apart in a certain sense.”
“Our pews were filled with people we did not know as well as people we did,” he said. “During events like this people need something to do. They feel frustrated, frightened and confused when they are unable to act. Even the act of going to church is helpful. It means they are connecting up with people and sharing in the struggle of trying to understand what’s going on.”
Wooden said that in the days that followed he reached out to the Arab-American and Muslim community.
“One of the first things that made itself evident to us after the facts about it being a deliberately planned attack by Muslim radicals was that I, as the president of the clergy association, needed to make my way down to the Arab-American Family Center which was just south of us by a few blocks. I told them we needed to work together because people are going to be anxious and your community is going to be especially anxious,” he said.
“We organized a memorial service for all the religious communities to meet and to offer prayers of grief and hope. We had clergy who were Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish, and we prayed in Hebrew and Arabic and in English,” Wooden said. “What really surprised me was that more than 2,000 people came. It was a really important thing to do. It was important for people to be together.”
In regards to the current controversy about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to exclude any prayers from clergy at ground zero in the upcoming 10th anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, Wooden said he had mixed feelings.
“Momentous events evoke in people their most basic beliefs and values and those frequently take religious form. Not having that part is a loss,” he said. “On the other hand, who’s to choose who should be participating?”
“The urge to speak and to pray and to use religious language is very honest and very real and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to do it. At the same time, if those words could be said without doing it on anyone else’s behalf … if (prayer leaders), would say for example, ‘let me pray in the words that I know, for the things that I believe,’ I could get behind that right away.”
“I’m not saying that the mayor is right or wrong, but I am alert to the complexity of what he had to do,” he added.
Wooden’s background as a Unitarian, includes the belief that the church community should “challenge individuals to craft their own spiritual journeys.” He told the CP that his denomination is often considered “marginal or borderline Christianity.” Although he said that he neither is opposed to or against formal Christianity, his church’s (Fountain Street Church) website does not mention Jesus on its “History and Faith” page.
Recently, evangelical leaders such as megachurch Pastor Rick Warren have shown opposition to Bloomberg’s decision. Warren will be leading a "Hope and Freedom" memorial and prayer event that will include collaboration with Lower Manhattan Community Church on the weekend of the anniversary. The church is two blocks from Ground Zero.