Looking Back on 9/11, Fifteen Years Later
A press conference filmed 2 days after 9/11 prompts five NYC Faith Leaders to reflect, assess, and offer direction for the future
Edited by Kevin Childress
Fifteen years ago, just 2 days after the shocking tragedy of 9/11, The Interfaith Center of New York hosted a press conference where dozens of leaders from diverse New York City faith communities expressed interfaith and multicultural unity in the face of terrorism. We recently showed an archival recording of that press conference to five faith leaders who spoke at it, asking them to share their memories of 9/11, to weigh in on how racial, cultural and religious intolerance has changed since 2001, and to suggest what actions faith leaders – and all New Yorkers – can take now to help build peace in our world.
The Faith Leaders
(Photos & names link to video of their remarks 15 years ago):
Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis
Babá Antonio Mondesire, Awo Ifá Ol’Obàtálá (Ifá Preist), interfaith ambassador, Church of The Lukumi Babalu Aye
Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya, founder and chair of Women in Islam
Rev. T.K. Nakagaki, president of The Buddhist Council of New York
Where were you when 9/11 happened and what motivated you to speak at the conference?
Dr. Uma: I was at home getting ready to go to work and one of the news channels was on in the room. I was totally in shock by what I saw. In fact, that most horrible and sorrowful sight has never left me and continues to flash in front of my eyes. It is these emotions combined with sadness that I felt compelled to speak at the conference. I am a follower of the Hindu faith, which has taught me to look upon all beings and accept them with love, compassion, and respect as we are all children of God.
Sister Aisha: I was home when I received a call from a friend in London telling me to turn on the television, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I remember saying “WHAT?!” I turned on the television and watched in disbelief as my friend was still on the line, I told her I’d call her back. I started switching channels, I needed more information.
Babá Tony: I was on my way to work walking to the subway station. Within one block of my home, three people alerted me that a plane flew into the World Trade Center Towers. Moments later I could actually see +/- 20 stories of tower number one billowing smoke into an uncommonly blue clear sky. An eerie feeling enveloped me, a surreal sense of altered reality. It was worse than a science-fiction movie because many years earlier I had worked in Tower One in the approximate north face area where the plane hit. As a young man, I regularly worked extra hours, starting a career in Transportation Planning within a proverbial ivory tower. If I had stayed in that job and that career, I might have been one of the office workers trapped on 9/11, however that was not my destiny. As I observed the towers fall, I clearly sensed that (from my Yoruba/Lukumi faith perspective) humanity had made a wrong turn, which we describe as “osobo,” AND that we were headed to an unknown place in history where cooler more sober heads must prevail. I also had the clear sense that the “chickens had come home to roost.” The invitation from the Interfaith Center to speak and share my perspective wasn’t just motivation, it was “a calling” to represent and present a point of view I considered….and still do consider…. of value.
Rev. Nakagaki: I was at the library of the New York Buddhist Temple, making copies of a rare book on Shin Buddhism. I had started to chant the Buddha’s name “namo amida bu” when a member of the temple called me, saying, “Sensei, war has started. New York has been attacked. The World Trade Center in front of my building is burning. Something big is happening. What shall I do?” The next day, I heard many comments comparing the attack with Pearl Harbor, reminding me of the Japanese American internment experience during WWII. I wanted to share the story of the lesson of what happened to Japanese American during WWII because I feared similar things could happen to our Muslim friends in the U.S. Also, from the Buddhist perspective, we needed to appeal for peace, non-violence free from hatred, and it was really the time to practice compassion and peace.
Rabbi Potasnik: As the Jewish Chaplain of FDNY, I was at Ground Zero on the day of the tragedy, and for many weeks following. I recall standing with clergy of different faith traditions as bodies were removed from the rubble. It was one of those defining moments where we understood our common humanity. One of my most vivid memories is sounding the shofar at the site since Rosh Hashanna occurred a short time after 9/11. Once again we all stood together as we prayed that the New Year would not see such a horrific moment ever again.
What memories and feelings come to you when watching the press conference footage from 15 years ago?
Sister Aisha: I’m flooded with feelings of gratitude for the vision of Dean Morton [ICNY Founder] and The Interfaith Center of New York. This was a time of extreme hostility towards the Muslim community and the courageous stand the Center took to bring together the diverse New York City faith communities in the spirit of solidarity will stand forever as one of the highlights in my years of work in the interfaith movement.
Dr. Uma: As much as the whole 9/11 episode was very disturbing, emotional, anger provoking – faith leaders of different faiths coming together in this difficult time and expressing solidarity was indeed very hopeful and encouraging.
Babá Tony: I have memories of visceral tension in my gut as I reflect on the magnanimity of the event and the blessed opportunity – that “calling” – to share my thoughts and sentiments in that rare venue. I presented six open-ended questions that still call for conscious reflection and open dialogue today – perhaps more so.
Rev. Nakagaki: It was the beginning of the most challenging and difficult time of my life. I also realized the importance of interfaith cooperation to tackle the issue of hostility towards Muslims as well as the importance of promoting peace over revenge. I was happy to see all the faith leaders together, sharing our thoughts with a sense of care for each other. This was especially important as it was only two days after the terrorist attack. We were still not sure what would happen, thinking, will more attacks come? Is this it?
Rabbi Potasnik: The press conference for me was a way of affirming our unity and diversity simultaneously. Difference need not divide us but should be an inspiring catalyst bringing us together. We promised that while death did destroy so much life, we would not allow it to diminish our love for one another. We said that since terrorists want to separate us we would stand even closer together.
In the years that have passed since 9/11, how has the situation (of Islamophobia specifically, but racial/cultural/religious intolerance in general) changed? Has it improved or worsened?
Dr. Uma: In my opinion, in the last 15 years, situation remains fluid, has neither improved much nor worsened.
Sister Aisha: Sadly, we now find ourselves in a situation that threatens to undermine the many years of building solidarity, friendships, and even love across faith communities. However, I remain optimistic that we will not only survive this downward trend but come out even stronger as members of the human family.
Babá Tony: In 15 years, there are both improvements and deterioration — pulling in opposite directions — creating a global + societal tension that is testing every human being’s character. GOD ALMIGHTY/OLODUMARE is pushing humanity to evolve… this intense process includes the lifting of several veils so that historic relationships – some disturbingly sobering – are more apparent.
Rev. Nakagaki: Bias towards Muslims continues, because of the association of terrorist groups who describe themselves as Islamic. Also, conservative American politicians are promoting Islamophobia. Muslim communities are surely having a difficult time, but at the same time, in some ways the situation is improving, at least here in NYC, where two Muslim holidays were recently recognized by our public school system. More Muslim voices are being heard by people.
Rabbi Potasnik: Sadly, subsequent to 9/11, we still see hate crimes in our society where people are targeted because of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Frankly there should not be one hate attack after we witnessed the devastating impact of extremism. Thankfully in our city we have established close relationships that our level of communication remains open to one another.
What do people need to focus on now to try and address these issues and make for a more peaceful world?
Aisha al-Adawiya: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
Babá Tony: First and foremost, for the individual and collective – the “call” is loud and clear — creatively and constructively get to work on an issue that gets you upset or angry, and focus on solutions. We can do this. Second, engage in face-to-face dialogue to openly discuss, with spirit power, respect and intelligence, the problems, issues and opportunities. Third, build relationships between individual and groups of opposite polarities with the intent to have dialogues. Ifa teaches that nearly 94% of “reality” has two distinct perspectives. Both have value. Fourth, we need to grow beyond the social media icons of the day … it’s clear that if they are not helping us create and develop solutions, they are keeping us distracted and are part of the problems.
Rev. Nakagaki: People need to focus on how to make friends (inclusive), instead of how to make enemies (exclusive). This relates to the areas of dealing with religious and cultural differences, bias, mutual-understanding, dialogue, disarmament, fear, violence, interconnectedness etc.
Rabbi Potasnik: A thought to focus on: Interestingly the words UNITED and UNTIED are spelled with the exact same letters. The only difference is where we place the letter I. The same is true in our lives in that if we only speak of I rather than we, a relationship becomes UNTIED. However, when the we takes precedence, it remains UNITED. As descendants of Adam & Eve, we all have birth certificates with similar origins and this must remain UNITED.
What actions can New York faith leaders – and the general public – take in their daily lives to try and make a difference?
Dr. Uma: Faith leaders have a great role to play in bringing peace to the community. Respect and acceptance of all faiths is the first step. Ridiculing and disrespecting beliefs provokes anger and this may lead to violence – Religious leaders have the power to influence their congregants about religious harmony. It is the hatred of other faiths, mockery of their beliefs and/or symbols which provoke violence. It is therefore necessary for all of us as faith leaders to do our part with our congregants and create a situation where congregants of different faiths can meet and exchange thoughts and methods of worship followed in their respective faiths.
Sister Aisha: I’m reminded of a story a surgeon friend of mine told at a gathering. She said that when she goes into the operating room she can see the color of her patient, but when she makes the incision the blood is always red! New Yorkers are a mighty resilient people and we will continue to create new ways of living together, working together, and even loving together – it’s what we thrive on!
Babá Tony: As faith leaders, we have to navigate, manage and lead our own selves — and our congregants/students/”Godchildren” – to work creatively to transcend the trappings of existing contradictions, injustices and several levels of dissonance – cognitive, emotional, political, spiritual, economic. Study and practice leadership – lead yourself first, then others. Listen to voices and teachings from “the margins,” voices from the periphery, and the voice of Mother Earth. And be prepared — spiritually and otherwise – for the next big, milestone catalyst that will test our individual and collective characters.
Rev. Nakagaki: Greet your neighbor, saying “hello” with a smile, but without expecting a response. Try to do one helpful thing for others at home and at work every day, not expecting a thank-you. Simply put, “be kind to you and others as a member of earth beings.”
Rabbi Potasnik: We certainly have increased opportunities for dialogue amongst different communities, but we need to do better in reaching the grass roots, many of whom are disconnected from any faith tradition. Mother Theresa said that we often make circles too small for inclusion of different peoples. Our responsibility is to widen those spaces where the many can stand together as one.
In commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, and looking ahead to the Interfaith Center of New York’s 20th anniversary, it seems fitting to close here with words offered by ICNY’s Founder and President, the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, from the press conference 15 years ago:
“What have we really learned from this? Is tomorrow going to be different from the day before yesterday? We have so much to commit ourselves to do – and they’re not hard things. They take everything, because we have to change bad habits, but to love someone who’s different isn’t really hard. We’ve heard since we were tiny tots that we’re one family, but we really haven’t believed it, and that’s been the blessing in disguise of [9/11]. We really see that we are one family.”
Note: Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Babá Antonio Mondesire, Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya and Rev. Nakagaki are all members of the board of directors of The Interfaith Center of New York. Dr. Uma Mysorekar is a former board member.
Kevin Childress was a 9/11 first responder. He currently runs a content marketing consulting company, and is the social media manager for The Interfaith Center of New York.
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