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Wednesday, October 3,2001

Oh my God! There is a god

Wayne talks with Ed Koch

As Ed Koch watched his city's two tallest buildings turn to rubble and dust, the former three-term mayor thought his world was crumbling down. Colleagues in his New York City law firm watched the horror on TV, screaming "Oh my God" throughout the morning of Sept. 11.

So it struck Koch. He needed God, right away, and he knew exactly where to find him: at St. Patrick's Cathedral-along with some 4,000 others who sought solace and spiritual refuge there within hours of the attacks.

Koch is Jewish, yet he loves to pray and worship at the Catholic cathedral. He was best friends with the late Cardinal John O'Connor, former archbishop of New York, and as such became accustomed to hanging around Catholics and Catholic churches. He views religion as a metaphorical tool that helps people communicate with God.

I spoke with Koch Friday, Sept. 21, and he told me that the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon brought everyone a little closer to God.

"You know, as those buildings burned and then crumbled, all you could hear in this law firm was 'Oh my God! Oh my God!' I'm sure it was like that in every office and every living room in America. That is a call for intercession by God, even if the people saying 'Oh my God!' don't understand that," Koch said.

The cries for intercession reminded him of his combat days in World War II. Nobody thought about much of anything other than the fate of their own souls, he explained, as bullets whizzed by their heads.

"I was there and I saw it," Koch says. "There were no atheists in fox holes. Not a one."

Koch believes in the power of prayer, because he has seen it work-as mayor of New York, as a soldier and as a mere private citizen practicing law.

"I call on God all the time," Koch says. "I had a stroke in '86, and a heart attack in '98. I said 'listen, God, please take me any time you would like. I've had a very good life. But please don't take me one slice at a time. Take me all at once when you're ready.' I explained to God that I don't want to be left unable to care for myself. And on those two occasions he has let me recover."

Just north of my old home on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Father William Byrne has witnessed two full weeks in which non-religious people have been calling on God. He's a chaplain at the University of Maryland, and he lost his best friend on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. As students and faculty dealt with the terrorist attacks, a tornado hit the campus Sept. 25, wreaking havoc and killing two people.

As a result, Father Byrne has had little time to mourn his friend, because he has been inundated with people asking him how to talk with God.

"Where else are people going to go for answers, at this point, but to religion," Father Byrne said. "You won't get answers anywhere else and people know that. This is the first time many people are experiencing their own souls. You have a soul, and that doesn't change no matter how long you choose to deny it. Right now, a lot fewer people are denying it."

One question asked of Father Byrne frequently is: "How can God let this happen?"

To which Byrne says: "As far as I can tell, God was not flying any of those planes. But God created a free world, and love is nothing if not given freely."

Father Byrne, like other priests interviewed by the Weekly, has seen about a 30 percent sustained increase in attendance at services since Sept. 11.

Likewise, synagogues have seen increased attendance since the attacks. Rabbi Hersh Ginsberg, chairman of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, says Jews are turning to services and prayer like he hasn't seen since World War II. He personally witnessed the second plane collision, while standing outside of his office a few blocks away at 235 E. Broadway. He was standing there when the first building collapsed, and he had to run for cover from flying dust and debris.

"It was the most shocking thing I've ever seen," Rabbi Ginsberg said. "I saw the Holocaust, and this reminded me of the Holocaust."

Although the Holocaust resulted in far greater loss of life, Ginsberg says the Sept. 11 attacks on America-just like the Holocaust-should be an occasion for rabbis, ministers and priests to inspire people to be in relationship with God. He says it's a time "to lead moral lives and repent. We must pray for God to have mercy and to bring peace."

More so than at any time in history, perhaps, Americans are witnessing public displays of religion, faith and prayer on American soil. Memorial and prayer services-involving the president, former presidents, members of Congress, governors, mayors and bureaucrats-are common. They're carried live on national TV, and nearly everyone seems to be tolerating them.

Even Carla Selby, former chairwoman of Boulder's ACLU chapter, seems to understand. Selby, an atheist for whom I hold great respect and admiration, has made national news during the past decade challenging public displays of faith. When hikers placed angel ornaments on trees in Boulder forests, Selby demanded they come down. She has asked that Boulder's lighted star, displayed on a mountain at Christmas time, be shut off. She has challenged crosses placed on the sides of roads in memory of fatal crashes. Yet the daily barrage of religion on TV hasn't sent her spinning.

"As a human being, I understand it," Selby says. "There are religious people in this world, and they need God as an answer."

However, Selby fears the outpouring of public worship may lead to an atmosphere in which it becomes harder to keep prayer out of schools. She worries about "separation of church and state," a law that doesn't appear in the United States Constitution but has been decreed in recent history by the Supreme Court of the United States.

"The Taliban in Afghanistan are a good example of what an extreme theocracy can bring about," Selby says. "Because of religion taking over that country, the mules are treated better than the women."

But our Constitution precludes the onslaught of a theocracy precisely because it protects religious diversity. Unfortunately, atheists have misused the First Amendment in an effort to make their religion-their faith in a theory that God doesn't exist-as the established religion of the United States.

Their efforts have been in vain, as seen in the widespread, free and public displays of faith in the wake of the world's worst terrorist attacks.

The culture of non belief may be a trend of the past. Hollywood movies, such as Titanic and Cast Away, look silly now. In these movies-in the midst of mayhem, death and disaster-characters face their own mortality by worrying about worldly possessions and human relationships, rather than the salvation of their souls. The plots are as unrealistic and transparent as the special effects.

Real disasters are bigger than life. In them, people don't worry about the here and now. Instead, as former Mayor Koch explained, they instinctively call out to God. And they mean it.

Send letters to the editor to: letters@boulderweekly.com. Fax: 303-494-2585. Snail mail: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80305. Contact Wayne Laugesen at Wayne@Laugesen.com.

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