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‘The story is still unfolding’: 10 Americans on how 9/11 changed their faith lives

The Sept. 11 attacks changed many Americans’ faith communities and spiritual lives as much as it did how we see our world and one another.

Tribute in Light, two vertical columns of light representing the fallen towers of the World Trade Center, shine against the lower Manhattan skyline. Photo by David Z/Pixabay/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, changed many Americans’ faith communities and spiritual lives as much as it did how we see our world and one another.

Muslims particularly stood out against the religious landscape as they hadn’t before, as did Sikhs and others whose appearance marks their religious observances. Christians, Jews and people of no faith demanded deeper answers and examined their own and others’ beliefs more deeply. 

Over the past month, Religion News Service sought out Americans of differing backgrounds to reflect on how 9/11 affected their faith lives and how faith has in turn informed their response to the day. The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

RELATED: 9/11 became a catalyst for interfaith relations and cooperation


Heraa Hashmi

An activist, author and law student living in California

Heraa Hashmi. Courtesy photo

Heraa Hashmi. Courtesy photo

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and as a part of the Muslim community, which is quite small, very tightknit. It was only when I got older that I realized there was this kind of impression that Muslims were linked to 9/11. My dad had people he knew who passed away. For me, it was something collective, and we were all impacted. For others, they saw me as associated with the people who carried this out. 

A lot of Muslim women took off their hijab, because they felt they would be targeted. My mom would get comments all the time. A lot of community members faced workplace discrimination. And a lot of children who grew up in this environment faced teasing or bullying. I would say that I try to look for more constructive things that came out of this situation. Growing up like this motivated me to be active in building bridges, working with other faith communities. Our mosque in Boulder works with the Jewish community to help students, both Jewish and Muslim, who feel they are being targeted for their faith. 

I started law school this week. I’m learning about the legal system and trying to figure out where I fit into this. Where do Muslims fit as a part of this very diverse fabric of American life? 

Eric Orgen 

A human resources consultant from Teaneck, New Jersey, he has been a volunteer emergency medical technician since 1994

Eric Orgen. Courtesy photo

Eric Orgen. Courtesy photo

I got back from Hawaii on Sept. 10, 2001 — when we realized we were pregnant for the first time we went away to Hawaii. The next day, I was in the office next door to the New York Stock Exchange. We were watching it from the window of our office building. Once things calmed down, I was heading there, and family and friends said, “Your wife is pregnant. Get home.” So I stayed behind.

9/11 taught me life is short. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, much less an hour from now. Live every day as if it’s your last. Some of the cool things I saw at 9/11 were complete strangers helping others; people running into danger when others were running from it; the kindness shown to strangers to ensure everyone was safe and doing OK. That’s what it’s meant to me: Help others and they’ll help you. Be a good person. Treat other people right. Do what you can to make this a better world. I attend a Congregation Rinat Yisrael, a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Part of my religion is to treat others as we want to be treated and help others that need to be helped. If I have a skill and the ability to help somebody, I’m doing good for the world. 

Ann Van Hine

A former dance studio owner and widow of a New York City firefighter from New Jersey

Ann Van Hine. Courtesy photo

Ann Van Hine. Courtesy photo

I picked my girls up from school and I think I went to this mode of “OK, how am I going to protect my kids?” And thinking, when Bruce gets home, he’ll take care of all of it. That night, about midnight, the fire department came to say that he was unaccounted for. At that point, there’s still the hope, but over the next days and weeks I decided that we were going to have a memorial service. That he wasn’t coming home. 

I’ve had people say, “I don’t understand why you didn’t turn from God.” But God was the only sure thing. Sometimes, it’s like, “OK, God, let’s do the next 10 minutes.” In the last 20 years, I’ve gone through breast cancer. I’m now cancer-free, but I can tell you during that time it was, “Give me 10 minutes.” And he can be trusted. That’s the real thing, that God does love me. We live in a fallen world, and stuff happens. And I know God weeps too.

Right after Sept. 11, I said to my girls, “We need to pray for the hijackers’ families and the hijackers.” All the people who died that day were somebody’s son or daughter. That doesn’t mean I condone anything, but I can’t see 9/11 just as an American. First I see it through the lens of an FDNY widow, then through the lens of a follower of Jesus, then as an American. It’s a story that’s still unfolding. I appreciate all that’s been done for me and my family, but besides focusing on those we lost we also need to remember those who saw things they should never have seen — the first responders, the health care workers. These people are also traumatized, and we need to remember them too.

David Christianson

An online learning designer at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas

David Christianson. Courtesy photo

David Christianson. Courtesy photo

We were planning to stay in a hotel near Grand Central Station that week, but on Sept. 1, our travel agent called and said the hotel had no rooms for Sept. 9 and 10 and offered to move us to a location in the World Trade Center complex for another $200. We didn’t have the money, so we canceled the trip. Thank God, for this providential lack of funds!

I was dumbfounded by the attack. After the towers fell, you saw footage of many people helping each other walk away. That had a huge impact on me. It was amazing to see this, in this moment of crisis, in a city that has a reputation of people being rough and mean. That impressed on me how I fell for stereotypes. There’s good in people. It made me want to know more about Islam. That’s how I deal with things. I started by reading books from Christian evangelical authors talking about how awful Muhammad is, and how awful Islam is, and it’s built on war. Then I read books about how Islam is a peaceful religion. Growing up in the Church of Christ, I felt we were the right form of Christ believers and at times believed we were the only ones going to heaven. Now I understand that God is much bigger than any kind of pocket I can put him into. At the end of the day, it’s violent people who do violent things, not violent religions that make them.

I’m still a Christian. I believe Jesus is the son of God. In 2019, my wife and I were confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But I think God can work with people who are believers in God. Rather than preaching to the world, let’s get down to basics and love our neighbor.

Sandeep Singh

A cardiologist in Middletown, New York

Sandeep Singh. Courtesy photo

Sandeep Singh. Courtesy photo

My in-laws were visiting from Kenya. As practicing Sikhs, we’re outwardly identifiable, and we were being lumped into the category of terrorists. I didn’t let my father-in-law outside. I said, “Stay inside the house.” The next day at the grocery store a lady accosted me and spit in my face. She said: “You people did this. Go back to your country.”

I’ve been in this country since I was a year and a half. To be told I don’t belong — that, to me, was not logical. I became much more proactive in educating people about who we were. I remember walking into a mall with my boys. A group of teenagers yelled out, “Hey, Osama!” I walked directly over to them. I said: “Excuse me. I don’t think I heard you.” They didn’t want to engage. I said: “I’ll tell you where I’m from. I’m from a small town in Ohio. I’m an American, no different from you. What if I told you, you remind me of Timothy McVeigh?” I almost looked for those opportunities to correct people.

In the Sikh faith, it’s about trying to rise to a spiritual level where you eliminate a false sense of “me and you.” I think I got more aggressive in adopting that worldview. I feel optimistic that there’s more dialogue about people from different backgrounds. But I’m somewhat disappointed at the below-the-surface sentiments in the last few years. Our leaders need to do a better job of representing the diversity of America — Americans have forgotten that they came from other countries. I’m doing my best to be present and visible and outspoken so that people understand that just because he looks different doesn’t mean he is different.

Katie Ritsema-Roelofs

Minister of music and worship at Washington DC Christian Reformed Church

Katie Ritsema-Roelofs. Courtesy photo

Katie Ritsema-Roelofs. Courtesy photo

9/11 is one of my first memories of feeling that level of fear and instability. I was a high school junior in Denver, and teachers were coming and going looking visibly upset. I remember no actual instruction during that day. It was terrifying and confusing. I didn’t know much about terrorism. The combination of 9/11 and the events at Columbine High School meant suddenly there was a massive shift in feelings of safety.

As a Reformed Christian, I believe my safety and security is in Jesus Christ and it’s in my faith that I’m grounded. But that in no way makes me immune from the terrible sufferings of this world.

I was born in Seoul and adopted into a Dutch Christian Reformed Church family at 4 months old and raised totally white. When I was little, I didn’t spend a ton of time processing what it meant to have a different cultural identity than my ethnic identity. But after 9/11, there was an immediate suspicion of “the other,” especially within my faith community. I became very aware of my own skin. I’m not Middle Eastern, but the pictures being put up all over the news gave me room to reflect on my own feelings of being an outsider.

I’ve been worship planning for the service this week. We have a high number of federal employees in our congregation — 9/11 is a very real thing that’s happened to them, much in the same way that the Capitol insurrection happened personally to our people. 9/11 isn’t just something to remember, this is something to deeply mourn and grieve as personal. That changes the way we will mark the anniversary.

Joe Arlinghaus

A retired intelligence analyst who lives in Durham, North Carolina

Joe Arlinghaus. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Joe Arlinghaus. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

I was an intelligence analyst for the Army for 30 years. We were studying religion and terrorist groups that were based on religion or political parties with a religious base. After 9/11 we briefed officers and some enlisted. My main point was, “Respect, respect, respect.” Respect people’s cultures and religions. I came to know and appreciate and love the people of Afghanistan. I spent about two years in Afghanistan on eight different deployments. I feel very concerned now. I think the United States will be stronger and better for receiving Afghan refugees. They’re good people, hardworking, intelligent. They’ll make a contribution to our society and economy. As a Catholic, I see how Hispanic immigrants have brought a lot of vitality to the church in this country.

I went to Catholic high school and college and then went into the Peace Corps in Nepal. Afterward, I went to the seminary thinking I’d become a priest. That didn’t work out. But I really enjoyed studying theology. Then I went to graduate school. I studied Hindi, Urdu and Persian. Knowing something about Christianity helped me understand about Islam. I might have more in common with a Muslim Sufi than another Catholic. That’s just the way it is. Almost everything I’ve done, I feel like it’s been in an attempt to help other people and to be a bridge between cultures. I’ve always felt like that was my calling.

Freida Watson

A retiree who is involved in ministry and racial reconciliation living in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Freida Watson. Courtesy photo

Freida Watson. Courtesy photo

We were living in Montclair, New Jersey, and from there you can actually see New York and Lower Manhattan, so it felt like part of my extended community. I was walking with a friend from my neighborhood, and we both commented how the sky was so blue, like the blue crayon in the Crayola box. A neighbor came out and said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. It was disbelief, your mind can’t process that information. I began to worry because my husband worked in Brooklyn, and I couldn’t reach him because all the cell towers were down. It was hours before I got the assurance that he wasn’t injured. I picked up my kids after school and drove them to a high point in Montclair so they could see the history. It was just all smoke, and it was like that for weeks.

It shattered my faith somewhat, but it also strengthened it. On the one hand, how could this happen? On the other hand, I knew that God was still God. God was in control. At the time, it united the faith community tremendously. That was a wonderful thing to see and feel in the midst of such tragedy.

I think we have drifted from that. We had this tragedy in common that ran through all our lives, and it felt like it didn’t matter to white people as much that I was Black. The thing that was important was that I was American. That is not the case now. I believe the last administration has allowed the racism that was under the surface to now be acceptable in a way that I haven’t seen in my lifetime or maybe since I was young, growing up in Atlanta. I’m still an American, I was born here, but I know there are people who don’t want me to vote. The polarization is crippling, but God is still on the throne.

TK Barger

A Unitarian Universalist minister in Toledo, Ohio

TK Barger. Courtesy photo

TK Barger. Courtesy photo

I was a copy editor at TV Guide magazine in midtown Manhattan. On the day of the attack, I was headed to work from my home in Brooklyn when I learned that all subway services were canceled. I was active in my church, First Unitarian Congregational Society, and I wanted to provide some comfort and relief, but I didn’t want to go out with no qualifications or credentials and get in the way. I felt a drive to perform some kind of ministry where I could be able to help others with their spiritual yearnings.

In 2006, I entered seminary in Chicago to start the process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. I was religion editor at the Toledo Blade for four years before being called to be a full-time minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Toledo. I joined the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry to be able to help congregations going through trauma. I try to build community in this world we know and help one another see the sacredness of all others. Our oldest son, who was 11 or 12 years old at the time, is now a firefighter in Yonkers. It really was 9/11 that pointed him, too, in the direction of his career.

In 2009, a tumor was discovered on my spine. I’ve had recurrences with tumors on my ribs and my collarbone. Now I have a tumor at the top of my spine. The diagnosis is multiple myeloma, which is one of the 9/11 diseases said to occur from being exposed to whatever building materials were involved in the building’s collapse. I’m 63.

Abrar Omeish

The youngest person to serve on the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia

Abrar Omeish. Courtesy photo

Abrar Omeish. Courtesy photo

I went to an Islamic school in Fairfax at the time and the school started getting a lot of scrutiny. We started to know that the FBI was around. People would spend a year or two in the mosque, and we’d discover it much later that they’d been a spy. I saw my faith as such a positive contribution to society, but I wasn’t being viewed in the same way, that way that I understood my identity and my community. 

It’s left me with a really complicated relationship with patriotism. It’s literally called the Patriot Act. What does it mean to be a patriot? Here I am, a hijab-wearing American Muslim, and I’m being told that I’m oppressed for the way that I dress, and America is going to save Muslim women abroad.

No doubt there is pain, of course, for the lives lost. We can all agree on that. But there is so much that is motivated by misunderstandings about what Islam is. In schools, 9/11 commemoration is a disaster. There are worksheets where you name all the bombers, and you’ll have a kid named Muhammad in that class reading about how Muhammad bombed his country. The America I imagine never gives up on our common bond of humanity or the potential for compassion to be a force of change.

RELATED: What two 9/11 anniversaries can teach us about the role of religion


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