Religion and 9/11: How tragedy changed the role of faith in the workplace

Of the many changes that resulted from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, one often overlooked is an expanded freedom to talk about issues of faith in the workplace.

“Faith at Work on 9/11” was the topic of a Sept. 9 webinar hosted by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 featuring Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, Father Greg McBrayer and professor David Miller.

Cook, the first female chaplain for the New York Police Department and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from April 2011 to October 2013, was on the job in New York City on 9/11 and said that as the 911 calls began to come in, police dispatchers were overwhelmed.

Dispatchers heard the pleas, she said: “Please tell my family that I love them.”

Other callers sought solace.

“Some of those who were perishing in the towers asked 911 dispatchers to pray … so they could go in peace and be assured that the Lord was with them.

“It was a moment none of us could have expected,” Cook said, but the Lord used those dispatchers.

‘Together’

“I remember praying with the 911 operators, ‘If we can get through this together, we can get through it,’” Cook said.

She recalled praying with firefighters and other first responders. She prayed with family members who were desperately searching for their loved ones in the rubble. And through it all, she said, “faith was our grounding because none of us had really been trained in trauma.”

Prior to 9/11, faith expressions were very limited in public spaces in New York, Cook said. What started that day at Ground Zero was a “new sensitivity” to faith issues in the NYPD, including one big change – “just the fact that you can say the word ‘faith’ and mention who you believe in,” she said.

More acceptance of faith in the workplace also was one of the many changes that occurred in the airline industry after 9/11, according to Father Greg McBrayer, an Anglican priest serving as chief flight dispatcher at American Airlines.

“At that point in my industry, faith was on the other side of the wall as well,” McBrayer recalled. “But once we found out there was an attack, we prayed that day together.”

U.S. flights remained grounded for days following 9/11, and Sept. 12 was a significant day, McBrayer said.

‘We need You’

“There was deafening silence when it’s usually very busy,” he said. “I saw the fear and anxiety on the faces of my coworkers. I remember crying out to God, saying ‘Lord, we need You here desperately.’”

For McBrayer, it was a personally defining moment. At the time he was in lay ministry, but he was later ordained and bringing faith into the workplace became part of his life’s work.

9/11 opened the door in the airline industry and many other businesses for faith-based employee resource groups, noted Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups centered around a specific characteristic. Though ERGs have been around since the 1960, faith-based ERGs were “brand new” at the time of 9/11, Grim said.

McBrayer said 9/11 was an impetus for Bible studies and faith-based ERGs in his workplace.

“Those programs have blossomed today, and numerous faith groups are represented,” McBrayer said. “It was truly 9/11 that set that into motion.”

And in the airline industry, which has taken a significant economic hit during the coronavirus pandemic, faith-based ERGs have equipped believers to better handle the frontline ministry they were cast into during a time McBrayer described as “a long drawn out 9/11.”

‘God at work’

For people of faith, 9/11 confirmed an important truth, said David Miller, director of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. That truth: God is at work.

Miller served nine months as a chaplain at Ground Zero and said he saw the city change almost instantly.

“Anger turned into forgiveness. Hate turned into love. Despair turned into hope. Racial and socioeconomic divides turned into one great big family,” he said. “It was just extraordinary.”

From his post at St. Paul’s Chapel, which suffered no damage despite its location across the street from Ground Zero, Miller prayed with first responders and prayed over body parts found in the rubble. In the pre-dawn hours of another exhausting day, too tired to pray, Miller saw a piece of what he thought was yellow barricade tape.

He kicked at the tape and the black words on the bright yellow tape caught his eye: GOD AT WORK. Miller instantly realized a dual meaning in those simple words, he said.

“It’s both a spatial reference — God is at work in this place even if we don’t feel it amidst the horror,” Miller thought. “But God’s also at work, as a verb. He’s busy, he’s active … in this place of work.”

Miller later used those words in the title of his book, “God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement,” which explores the history and importance of faith at work as a social movement.

Whether working in a “safe” office job or a high-pressure job like first responders, the military or flight controllers, Miller urged believers to be encouraged: “God is at work.”

‘Ministry of presence’

As Americans pause to remember the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Cook and McBrayer urged prayer for the family members of those who lost loved ones that day and those who continue to be affected by the tragedy.

“Also pray for those 911 operators who are still on the job taking those calls,” Cook said.

And remember that God is always at work through individual believers — we are all “spiritual first responders,” McBrayer said.

“You don’t have to be ordained to be used by God, you just have to be there,” he said. “The ministry of presence is always needed.”

Click here to watch the full webinar.

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