From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Sept. 11 attacks create need for spiritual care
Tue, 18 Jun 2002 14:03:57 -0500
June 18, 2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom7(212) 870-38037New York
NEW YORK (UMNS) - A national poll conducted a few weeks following the Sept.
11 terrorist attacks showed that Americans are more likely to seek help from
a spiritual counselor than from a physician or mental health professional.
That's why the American Red Cross, in conjunction with the New York Disaster
Response Interfaith, invited religious representatives to a June 17
conference in New York to explore the impact of the attacks on faith
communities and their leaders. United Methodists were among the
The idea of religious groups responding to a disaster is not new. The United
Methodist Committee on Relief, for example, regularly offers both
pre-disaster and post-disaster training to the denomination's annual
When it comes to suffering, "for many people in the communities we serve, we
are the first ... and the only resource," said Rabbi Stephen Roberts,
chairman of Disaster Spiritual Care Services for the American Red Cross in
Greater New York.
Although the despair was deep immediately after the tragedy, the most
difficult times for some may come between now and the next two or three
years, according to the rabbi. He noted that in the past month alone, he had
read of three suicide cases "directly related to 9/11."
The number of people impacted by the New York attacks is significant.
Besides the 2,823 who perished that day, another 50,000 escaped from the
area. About 370,000 people worked in lower Manhattan at the time, along with
thousands who lived there. Hundreds of thousands in Brooklyn and New Jersey
also had firsthand experience of the horrible event, he said.
In total, Roberts estimated, there may be more than a million people in the
area "who will be turning to us in the coming years" for spiritual
The Rev. Tom Vencuss, disaster response committee chairman for the United
Methodist New York Annual Conference, said he was glad to have confirmed at
the conference that people more often seek spiritual counseling in times of
crisis. "People turn to congregations of faith," he added. "The weekend
after Sept. 11, our churches were full."
Vencuss hopes to pursue more training for conference clergy members,
particularly in strengthening relationships with mental health professionals
and those who are among the "first responders" to disasters.
Attending to spiritual care following Sept. 11 is different than in other
disasters, according to Terry Becker, manager of pastoral care at the
University of Chicago Hospitals. Certified by the National Association of
Catholic Chaplains, Becker served as coordinator of spiritual care services
for the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in New York shortly after the
World Trade Center tragedy.
In this case, the disaster provoked both deeply felt individual trauma and a
broadly experienced community or national trauma. "This crisis is very much
a spiritual crisis at root," Becker said.
Circumstances that increased the impact of the trauma were the fact that it:
7 Resulted from a hostile action.
7 Involved the deaths of many people.
7 Happened suddenly and without warning.
7 Involved prolonged suffering.
7 Destroyed massive amounts of property.
7 Raised the question of whether preventive measures could have been
7 Represented a symbolic assault on an entire nation.
Steps to recovery, she said, include the establishment of safety,
remembrance and mourning, and re-connection with ordinary life. The
community is not yet at the point of re-connection, she added.
The inevitable anger and alienation against God after such a disaster is
more often "a profound cry of pain" than a severing of a spiritual
relationship, according to Becker.
She defined spiritual care as an accompaniment, a witness, or being in
solidarity. Offering a presence to individuals in their suffering is often
more important than using words of solace, she noted. "When people are
deeply heard, they heal."
Two speakers from Oklahoma City talked about how that city coped in the
aftermath of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal
Building there. The incident, in which 168 people were killed, had been
considered the worst terrorist attack in the United States until the events
of Sept. 11.
The Rev. Brad Yarbrough, who became the clergy coordinator at the Oklahoma
City Family Assistance Center after the bombing, said one of the lessons
learned was that non-religious people should not be supervising clergy
involved in spiritual care. "That's kind of like asking a baseball coach to
be in charge of the football team," he said.
The task of coordinating spiritual care in Oklahoma City was made easier by
the fact that the mayor's downtown prayer breakfast with local religious
leaders had concluded just before the blast and many were still nearby. The
mayor, according to Yarbrough, asked the Rev. Robert Allen, then pastor of
Wesley United Methodist Church, to organize a ministry effort on the spot.
Allen had been a speaker at the breakfast.
"There was an immediate organizational structure that had authority,"
Yarbrough recalled. "Because of that, we were able to have ministers
Part of that supervision involved screening clergy and religious volunteers
and ensuring that they were integrated into the overall response. Fears
about ministers being too "preachy" were quickly dispelled, Yarbrough added,
and the mental health professionals involved were impressed by the clergy's
The role of the faith community in Oklahoma City was critical and vital to
both the response effort and overall community health, he said. In addition,
ministers were given permission "to graciously adhere to the tenets of their
faith with the top priority of providing compassionate care to the
John Tassey, a clinical psychologist who coordinated the mental health
response to the Oklahoma City bombing, spoke about health and unhealthy
coping styles that people develop after a disaster of such magnitude.
"People in Oklahoma City set their watches by April 19, 9:02 a.m.," he said.
"People in New York City will set their watches by Sept. 11."
Although some direct survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing immediately
reported symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, most diagnoses of the
disorder come later, during the reconstruction phase after a disaster,
Tassey said. Symptoms include recurring thoughts or nightmares; avoiding
people, places and activities; being "on edge"; feeling emotionally numb;
experiencing anxiety and fear; and feeling extremely protective of or
fearful for the safety of loved ones.
The Rev. Charles Straut Jr., who has coordinated the United Methodist New
York Conference's response to Sept. 11, said he appreciated the feedback
from the Oklahoma City speakers and noted the even greater challenge to
spiritual care in a place like New York City, which is so religiously
United Methodists are a part of New York Disaster Recovery Interfaith, which
is working on a spiritual care component for religious leaders themselves.
"We're trying to address aggressively the phenomenon of clergy or religious
leader attrition, essentially from spiritual burnout," Straut said.
The issue of "compassion fatigue" was touched upon by several conference
speakers, most notably the Rev. John Wilson, an American Baptist minister
and hospital chaplain. He pointed out that clergy are particularly
vulnerable to this syndrome because of their ability to relate emotionally
to others. "We literally cry inside with those who share pain with us," he
The Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Disaster Response of New York
provided funding for the conference.
# # #
United Methodist News Service
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