NEW YORK — The Pope’s pilgrimage to the site of the World Trade Center revives a question asked by many of those traumatized by the terrorist attacks, including the faithful, the faithless and those in between: Where was God on Sept. 11, 2001?
On Sunday, two dozen 9/11 survivors, victims’ relatives and rescue workers will accompany Benedict XVI to Ground Zero, “the scene of incredible violence and pain” in the words of the prayer the pope will recite in the pit where the twin towers stood.
Many whose lives were changed that day are still coming to terms spiritually with 9/11. Some have taken comfort from their faith; others have found it lacking. Some have a stronger faith, a different faith or no faith at all.
Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest who ministered to rescue and recovery workers, says there were no atheists at Ground Zero suddenly everyone had a spiritual life, no matter how tortured or confused.
Jay Rosenbaum, a Long Island rabbi, says he was almost overwhelmed when he arrived at Ground Zero on Sept. 12. Later, he conducted a simple prayer service in vestments that included a hard hat, combat boots and a prayer shawl. “Our mission is to look not only at the devastation there,” he said in his impromptu sermon, pointing to the shell of one tower, “but the devotion here” the dusty, exhausted, rescue workers around him.
“It was one of the most affirming moments of my life,” he says. “I felt this was something I was worthy of doing.”
To others, 9/11 seems to belie the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful God. Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith, his best-selling attack on religion, the day after the attacks.
Jonathan Miller, who wrote and narrated a 2004 BBC series on atheism, says that given the hijackers’ militant Islamist theology, 9/11 would have been “inconceivable without religion.”
Why would God allow such an atrocity especially in God’s name? Didn’t religion drive the hijacked jets into the towers?
Lyndon Harris was the Episcopal priest in charge at St. Paul’s Chapel, which stood in the shadow of the towers. Here’s how he explains it: “God gave us free will, and some people chose to do evil. But the first heart to break on 9/11 was the heart of God.”
That’s one answer. Minerva Rosario, who lost her sister-in-law at the Trade Center, has another.
“If you lose your faith, you have nothing left.”
A renewed faith
Each morning when her husband left home in central New Jersey for the long commute to his job at the Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage firm on Floor 103 of the Trade Center, Jennifer Sands would pray for his safe return.
When Jim Sands didn’t come back on 9/11, it shattered her faith. “My anger was not at the terrorists. I hadn’t been praying to Osama bin Laden, I prayed to God. He could have stopped it. I felt very alone rejected and abandoned.”
But she still believed in God. “I realized, ‘I can’t be angry at someone who doesn’t exist!'” Curiosity over that paradox led her to study the Bible for the first time, and to a new evangelical Christian faith.
She doesn’t go out partying the way she used to. She prays before every meal, even in restaurants. She talks about Jesus in casual conversation.
It all makes some old friends uncomfortable. “They look at me as a Jesus freak, which is how I used to think of people like me. I did not like people like me.”
Last year, she again confronted a crisis of faith when, at 43, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
At first, she couldn’t believe it: “I thought: ‘God wouldn’t let something else happen to me, would he?’ Well, he can. In John 16:33, Jesus says that in this world, you will have trouble. But I know he has a plan for me.”
The Holocaust destroyed Gila Barzvi’s parents’ faith in Judaism. After 9/11, she understood why.
“I was not a religious person to begin with,” she says, “but whatever faith was left to me, I lost when they took my son away.”
Guy Barzvi, who worked at the Trade Center, was 29. After he was killed, his parents did not sit shiva or go to synagogue or light candles.
Gila, 60, lives in the Forest Hills section of Queens, N.Y. Her husband, an avowed atheist, died three years ago in part, she suspects, of a broken heart.
“He felt singled out,” she says. “He couldn’t take the pain.”
On Fridays, she attends a support group for relatives of Trade Center victims. Some are believers. Sometimes Barzvi envies their faith.
“I want to believe there was a reason why he was taken away, especially in that horrible way,” she says.
She refuses to be a hypocrite and worship a God who would tolerate 9/11. Her consolation comes mostly from sharing her story with others who also suffer.
Her parents emigrated from Eastern Europe, where they survived the Holocaust. Like them, she says, “I live day to day. What am I going to believe in? The pope?”
Things ‘happen on God’s time’
After Liz Holmes perished at the Trade Center, people worried about her 12-year-old son, Travis Boyd. He’d seen a jet smash into his mother’s building on TV and had gone with relatives from hospital to hospital searching for her. Afterward, he didn’t cry or mourn or show much emotion. He needed professional help, his aunt thought.
In fact, Travis says, he would wake in the middle of night in a cold sweat and cry for Holmes, who’d raised him as a single mother. That’s when his faith, nurtured over the years at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, came into play.
“I knew God would get me through it,” he says. “That’s just his way. It allowed me to keep going to school, to stay on the honor roll. I didn’t cry in front of people because I knew that my mom wouldn’t have wanted me to.”
By December, he realized his mother was not coming back. His midnight prayer changed from asking that she be found to asking God to care for him in her absence. He says he was not angry or bitter: “I knew God does things for a reason, not just when and how we want them. Things don’t happen on our time, they happen on God’s time.
“People said, ‘He needs to talk about it,’ but I was talking to God on a daily basis. It helped me to talk about things when I prayed. If you talk to God, basically he’s your therapist.”
He says he stopped going to his appointments with a psychologist, and the sessions were canceled.
Now he’s 19 and a freshman at Virginia Union University in Richmond. He’s made the dean’s list and founded a gospel choir. He quotes St. Paul: “‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.’ I was happy to see the unseen; that’s when my faith came into play.”
Signs in everyday life
One day in 2002, Bonnie McEneaney was in a meeting with other Trade Center widows when there was a knock on the door.
It was her minister. The remains of her husband, Eamon, who worked on the 105th floor, had been found.
The minister said he’d drive her home. On the way, he pulled into the cemetery. “He said I had to start thinking about this,” she recalls.
Suddenly, the minister stopped the car; a great blue heron was in the road. Then she realized: Her father had loved a blue heron that used to stand outside his seaside home in Florida. Eamon had given him a large Steuben glass heron sculpture as a Christmas present.
A few weeks later, she again saw the heron at the cemetery, this time on the day she selected Eamon’s plot.
To McEneaney, the heron was a sign a communication from Eamon like those dozens of relatives of Trade Center victims say they’ve received from loved ones.
She doesn’t know what the signs mean, but says there have been so many, for so long involving birds, butterflies, numbers, coins, apparitions that she’s writing a book about them titled Messages.
She realizes that to many people, including some religious ones, it’s all mumbo-jumbo. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “But we’ve all had to redefine the definition of normal.”
A ‘squashed’ spirituality
When Marian Fontana saw the south tower collapse, “My first impulse was to drop to my knees and pray.” Her husband, Dave, was a firefighter; he’d rushed to Lower Manhattan even though he was supposed to have had the day off to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary.
She knelt before the television in her living room, said “The Lord’s Prayer” and tried to bargain with God for Dave’s life offering, she would recall, “pacts, treaties, promises and vows.”
In the days that followed, with Dave missing, Marian walked around her Brooklyn neighborhood, going church to church, regardless of denomination, begging God to return Dave to her and their 5-year-old son.
When she realized her husband was dead, Marian Fontana stopped talking to God.
By the time of his funeral, she writes in her memoirs, A Widow’s Walk, she wanted to believe in God, but “something has shifted, and even my limited spirituality seems to have been squashed among the debris.”
She describes feeling “like a spurned friend” her relationship with God another casualty of 9/11.
Now, at 41, Fontana says she probably has “some buried religiosity that’s been suppressed since 9/11. But I’m not in a spiritual realm that is God- or pope-related. Organized religion has caused most of the problems we’re having today.”
‘A sign’ from God
In the ruins of the Trade Center, Frank Silecchia found what seemed like a miracle. Now, he says, he needs a miracle himself.
Silecchia is the burly construction worker who spotted “The Cross at Ground Zero” a 20-foot-high cross section of steel I-beams in the shape of a cross standing upright in the rubble.
He saw it just before dawn on Sept. 13, 2001, as he finished helping lift three bodies from the wreckage. He dropped to his knees in tears: “It was a sign that God hadn’t left us.”
Silecchia spray-painted directions to the cross through the wreckage. Rescue and recovery workers stopped by on their breaks; some inscribed names of the dead on the cross. A priest said Mass there each Sunday.
Today, the cross stands outside a church a few blocks from Ground Zero, awaiting completion of a Trade Center memorial. Silecchia, 53, lives in a cluttered, old RV parked on a street in Brooklyn, where, he says, “I’m dying.”
Like many who worked at the site without masks to protect them from toxic dust, he’s having trouble breathing. He says he can’t walk a block without stopping. His weight is up to 375 pounds.
He has trouble sleeping and recurrent nightmares. He hasn’t worked in three years.
“For me,” he says, “9/11 doesn’t go away.” But the cross redeems his suffering, justifies his faith.
Silecchia hopes, against all odds, that the pope will stop at the cross on his way to Ground Zero.
“I hope he’ll bless it and me, too, I guess.”