By Darrel Rowland
Perhaps none of us can forget where we were and what we felt when we first heard of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. But perhaps many of us don’t know how God has worked through individuals and the local church to bring redemption and hope since then.
This week we want to tell that story.
Chip Gilgen was staring at the burning World Trade Center from a 25th-floor window of his FBI office when he saw the second plane slam into the other twin tower.
Lisa Gilgen was still at work near Rockefeller Center while a coworker was talking to his cousin in one of the towers the moment it fell.
“He heard him die, basically,” she remembers.
In the next several days, Chip Gilgen monitored crews going through the towers’ wreckage as they unsuccessfully searched for the planes’ black boxes.
Ten years later these transplanted Ohio Christians still live with the impact of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They know several people who lost loved ones, including one of their daughter’s best friends, whose father was a firefighter.
“To actually be in the city during the event, you never forget that,” Lisa Gilgen said. “I think the attacks just reinforced our faith . . . also, how important the support of your earthly church family is.”
Attendance at Cornerstone Christian Church in suburban New Jersey has doubled since the attack.
“It was not necessarily 9/11, but people are looking for something,” Chip Gilgen said. “Just the people I know and work with, people were a little more spiritual. We talked about it more, our group of friends.”
If there can be a positive spinoff from a national tragedy, the story of a new receptivity to Christ in some previously resistant soils is one. Of course, spiritual fervor sparked in many places across America 10 years ago but died out in a few weeks or months. Not so in New York City and Washington, D.C.
“There is no doubt the spiritual landscape of Manhattan has changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” said Brent Storms, president of the Orchard Group, which plants churches in the Northeast.
He said the percentage of Manhattan residents attending an Evangelical church has grown from 1 percent to 3 percent, while total attendance at Evangelical churches in Manhattan has grown even more significantly with an influx of people using public transportation from Brooklyn, Queens, and nearby suburbs in New Jersey.
“Of the 197 Evangelical churches in center city Manhattan (below 125th Street), nearly 40 percent have been started since 9/11,” Storms said. “Orchard Group has helped 12 new churches in metro New York since 9/11, and 24 total around the Northeast. On Easter Sunday this year, those churches had a combined attendance of 10,341. Over 2,000 people have been baptized through these new churches during this period.”
Chris Travis, lead planter of the Orchard Group’s upper Manhattan project, agreed that 9/11 had a “profound effect” on New York residents.
“I wasn’t here in the city (for 9/11), but people who were told me it did something to ‘break the ice’ in New York City,” he said. “New Yorkers are as direct-and-to-the-point as they’ve ever been, but are perhaps a bit less rude. New Yorkers revealed a lot of goodwill toward one another and a lot of hospitality—inviting strangers in, pitching in with the rescue and cleanup efforts.”
Of course 9/11 has its dark side even beyond the lives lost, wars started, and countless changes to Americans’ lifestyles.
“Tragedy also brings with it a lot of confusion about God’s goodness and power, and the temptation to doubt him,” Travis said. “Similarly, man-initiated tragedy like 9/11 always tempts us to hate, to seek revenge, to be unforgiving and grow bitter. I think a lot of racism and prejudice toward people who had nothing to do with 9/11 originated or gained momentum after the attacks. Christians must be more discerning than that.”
Along with a shift in attitudes, New York City saw a shift in demographics over the past decade, said Paul Williams, chairman of Orchard Group and editor-at-large of Christian Standard.
“You had a lot of people who moved out of the city, and a lot of jobs moved out of the city,” he said.
Taking their place were new families, many with school-age children, who were “far more open to spirituality.”
“I think it really changed New York,” Williams said.
The millennial generation places great importance on love in action—and post-9/11 New York provided multiple opportunities to put that belief into practice. At the same time, “a lot of well-educated baby boomers started thinking about spirituality,” he said.
Evangelical churches especially prospered because they were not afraid to aggressively seek the unchurched or get involved in the neighborhood, from handing out water bottles to supporting community agriculture projects. The emphasis has changed from striving to be the best church in the neighborhood to being the best church for the neighborhood, Williams said.
Reaching out to the community has become part of the DNA of Journey’s Crossing Christian Church in suburban Washington, D.C., and that’s a direct result of 9/11.
The church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was not scheduled to open until the spring of 2002. But when a plane smashed into the Pentagon about 20 miles away, the core group decided to launch October 21, 2001.
“We had an enormous need in our community,” said Darin Brown, outreach pastor. “People were just seeking answers. I think some people were afraid, some people were looking to reconnect to God.”
After four mass mailings of postcards to the surrounding area, the church had 500 its first Sunday. While the attendance of most new churches falls off the second Sunday, Journey’s Crossing grew a bit because David Beamer, father of United Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer, was on hand to tell his story (see related article).
“We didn’t really parlay the events of 9/11 so much as we said here’s a new church in your community,” Brown said. “That was an incredible movement and moment of God, that he was using the birth of a new church.”
Money poured in, too, through Beamer and Orchard Group, which gathered donations from the Midwest and elsewhere.
In the ensuing weeks the church reached out in a variety of ways.
It contacted the chaplain of the Pentagon, who was responsible for visiting homes of loved ones who lost their lives. The congregation not only prayed for him but gave him about 300 small packets, each with books to help the Pentagon families spiritually through their time of pain, gift certificates for area restaurants, and a Bible.
“He was just overwhelmed with gratitude,” Brown recalls. “I got several e-mails in the weeks afterward from people working at the Pentagon thanking us for that.”
The church expanded the effort to first responders, many of whom were working double shifts to help with rescue. Virtually all of the restaurants added to what the church had purchased when they heard where it was going.
“There was a nice community cooperative thing. This helped us as a church establish credibility in the community,” Brown said.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, when newly reopened Reagan National Airport was a virtual ghost town on what was usually one of the year’s biggest travel days, Brown started handing out checks to cab drivers, most of whom were losing money every day. He heard their stories, and wrote them checks for $300 or $400 on the spot.
Others went to Alexandria and helped small business owners suffering from the sharp drop in tourism.
Before Christmas, the church aided 30 families who had been laid off from a transport company, treating them to a buffet in a hotel near the Pentagon and providing $300 to $500, depending on their family size.
A company official warned church leaders not to evangelize during the gathering. “But then the very guy who told me not to do that, he got up and said something along the lines of, ‘during this tragedy, we all need to look to Jesus,’” Brown said. “He was just so overwhelmed with generosity and he knew where it was coming from and he knew our faith, so he said I don’t care if this gets me into trouble or not. That was the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
Brown said he can’t share a “come-to-Jesus story” from the church’s extensive efforts following the Pentagon attack, but an outward focus was immediately ingrained on the brand-new church members. Many seekers who helped with those early efforts joined the church and are now leaders.
“We’ve been able to continue that whole missional approach we started in the wake of 9/11,” he said. “If you’re going to sell yourself as ‘we care about our community,’ then you have to deliver the goods on that.”
In the Name of Jesus
The leaders of a church in a community more than 600 miles from New York City were talking about how they could deliver the goods for 9/11 victims, such as donating to the Red Cross.
“At the last second before the vote, one elder spoke up and said, you know, it would sure be nice if we were to give that money in the name of Jesus Christ,” recalls Dave Stone, now senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Southeast invited Williams to share the needs in New York for a few minutes with the congregation and Stone preached. The church passed the offering plate twice that weekend, once for its regular offering, and a second time to help victims of the disaster in New York City. Amazingly, each offering was almost identical, about $480,000. (Williams says all this money was distributed before Christmas, as well as about $650,000 more given from others throughout the weeks after 9/11.)
Perhaps the biggest impact of Southeast’s money is that it arrived early—usually well before substantial aid from the government or large nonprofits. Stone and his wife went business-to-business around Ground Zero, where shop owners and others still weren’t seeing any foot traffic and financial aid was nonexistent.
Like Brown in Washington, Stone listened to the business owners’ stories and often wrote them a check on the spot, usually ranging from $500 to $2,000.
“There are a number of Christians in Kentucky praying for you and who want to help,” Stone told them.
In each check’s memo line he always wrote: “Jesus loves you.”
“People (were) so touched and so moved by that expression,” he said.
The New York Times highlighted the memo line in a December 1, 2001, story about the aid—which completed the circle on the Southeast elder’s request to give the money in Jesus’ name.
Those distributing the money accounted for every penny, Stone noted, and Southeast has since contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Orchard Group’s church planting efforts.
The generosity has made a lasting impact on Southeast, too.
“We have people in our church who made a decision in that next month after 9/11 who have still stuck,” Stone said. “It took something that monumental to get their attention about the brevity of life.”
September 11, 2011
He said he hopes Christian preachers are taking advantage of the renewed attention people are giving to 9/11 surrounding the 10th anniversary.
“It’s one more opportunity for them to hear the gospel. It’s a chance for us to remind them that our hope is not in the country, our hope is not in the economy, our hope is not even in military force, but our hope is in Jesus Christ,” Stone said.
“It’s a great chance for Christians to remind people that life is short and you need to have the big questions of life, like where are you going to spend eternity, settled, because you never know whether there will be another 9/11 tomorrow.”
For the Gilgens, the anniversary will necessitate helping their children cope with the renewed emphasis on the attack a decade ago.
“Kids are now just sort of relearning it because they were so little when it happened,” Lisa Gilgen said. “Ten years have gone by very quickly. It just never leaves you.”
She always tries to attend the 9/11 memorial in a park next to the midtown fire station near where she works.
And even though he’s not in the counterterrorism unit, Chip Gilgen will be doing his part to keep us all safe.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know what we’ve interrupted or intercepted,” he said.
Lisa Gilgen says two verses have become especially meaningful to her:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27) and “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever” (2 Timothy 4:18).
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.