As the calendar marches resolutely toward Sept. 11, Baptist churches and other congregations across the country are planning to observe the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America through worship services, prayer vigils, interfaith events and other special activities.
Many churches will commemorate the Sept. 11 tragedy in Sunday morning and evening worship services on Sept. 8, using various forms of pastoral and congregational prayers, moments of silent prayer and reflection, music, Scripture readings, litanies, and the symbolic lighting of candles in memory of those who perished.
Sensitive to the wake of human tragedy, pastors are preparing sermons on grief and anger, while exploring biblical themes such as freedom, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, love and hope.
At the same time, many pastors and other worship leaders are trying to respond redemptively to acute needs and emotions, while avoiding even the most subtle traps that could unintentionally feed hyper-nationalism or religious and ethnic prejudice.
Prayer will be the prevailing theme for congregations during their Wednesday evening services on Sept. 11. Many will also open their doors to the community throughout the day for private prayer, meditation and remembrance.
In Kansas City, Mo., Holmeswood Baptist Church is making a special effort to invite members of the larger community to gather for “9/11: A Service of Remembrance and Reflection” to be held in lieu of the church’s usual Wednesday evening activities.
“In designing the service, we’ve tried to walk the thin line between requiem and remembrance so that those who attend might be drawn into reflection,” said pastor Keith Herron. “We want to consider how the world has changed, how we have changed and how we are invited to be light and salt in the world.”
The service will utilize sacred and secular music, scriptures and testimonies.
“Various members of our congregation will be invited to share reflections on how the events of that day have affected them,” Herron explains. “We are asking one of our older children to describe her thoughts. The parents of a soldier who has been sent to the Middle East will speak about their feelings of knowing their son is near the center of our American military response in Afghanistan. The pastor of our Russian-speaking mission will also speak.”
Churches are reaching across denominational and interfaith lines through bridge-building efforts such as interfaith dialogues, panel discussions and workshops. Others are participating in special community-wide events.
For some congregations, events planned for the week of Sept. 8 will culminate a yearlong focus.
“Over the last year, our focus has been to keep serving faithfully in our community and in our world,” said Mike Oliver, pastor of First Baptist Church, Williams, Ala. “We have discussed issues of justice tempered with compassion and mercy. We have talked much more about finding hope in the God who still holds the future and is active in our present, even if that present seems more uncertain and scary than before.”
“Our goals are unchanged–to love God, our neighbors and ourselves–but we have also refocused on what we can do to be instruments of positive change in our world and nation,” he said.
In the year before Sept. 11, the church had hosted people from other faiths in a Sunday evening series on world religions. Although some members were initially hesitant or skeptical, Oliver said the benefits of creating understanding and mutual respect became obvious after the terrorist attacks.
In Wilmington, N.C., Winter Park Baptist Church will devote much of September to remembering the tragedy. Pastor Michael Tutterow will preach a four-week series entitled “Real Homeland Security,” built around the story of Jesus and Peter walking on water in Matthew 14.
On Sept. 11, the church will be open throughout the day for prayer and reflection. A special service from 8:30 to 9:02 a.m. will consist of prayers, readings, visuals, Bible study resources and a brief reflection. A bell will chime at 8:47 and then again at 9:02, coinciding with the moments a year ago when two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
“The events of last year continue to be powerful and transforming,” Tutterow said. “We would be remiss if we ignored these events and didn’t take the opportunity to try to speak to them with a message of hope in Christ.”
In San Antonio, Texas, a community with a strong military presence, Trinity Baptist Church will host a Sept. 11 “service of remembrance and hope” that focuses on “confession and intercession, including prayers for peace, comfort and national healing,” said pastor Charles Johnson.
In addition to singing hymns of thanksgiving for the nation and its heritage of freedom, the congregation will hear an anthem composed by minister of music Randy Edwards in response to the terrorist tragedy. The service also will include segments of a video produced by New York’s Trinity Church, an Episcopal congregation located in the shadow of Ground Zero.
Some congregations also plan to reach out to their community through events honoring the men and women who place their lives on the line as police officers, firefighters and emergency response workers.
At First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, Tenn., firefighters of the city’s main fire station will be honored as part of a yearlong partnership. The station’s chief, representing all those who place their lives in jeopardy for the safety and well-being of the community, will be presented a declaration of appreciation for “the heroes among us.”
Pastor Michael Smith plans to preach from Romans 8, stressing Apostle Paul’s affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
“I plan not only to talk about the implications of this reality for us and all those touched by terrorism,” Smith said, “but also to stress that even someone reared in a hate-filled environment and trained to kill is not separated from the love of God.”
David Wilkinson is a well-known Baptist journalist currently writing news stories and features for EthicsDaily.com.