Many of us were outraged when New York City officials excluded prayer and members of the clergy from the 9/11 tenth-anniversary service on Sunday. Rudy Washington, a deputy mayor when terrorists flew two passenger jets into the Twin Towers, exclaimed, “To have a memorial service where there’s no prayer, this appears to be insanity to me.”
Well, that goes for me, as well! This decision to exclude the healing possibilities of faith was, at best, simply incomprehensible.
While it’s easy to get upset the decisions like this of timid city leaders, Christians can rejoice at some good news in Gotham. As the Washington Post reported earlier this year: “New York is exploding with religious fervor. … It’s hard for many folks outside the Big Apple — who write off the country’s largest city as hopelessly secularized — to grasp this.
That’s not hard to understand. After all, in 1975 The New York Times reported: “Religious leaders widely believe that since 1965, their institutions have lost both visibility and impact on public decisions. Fewer people now attend worship."
But all that has changed. According to the Values Research Institute, Central Manhattan has nearly 200 evangelical churches today — with 39 percent of them started since the year 2000. During one two-month period in 2009, researchers found that one new evangelical church was opened every Sunday in New York.
Well, 9/11 itself was part of the answer. LifeWay Research has found that 38 percent of Americans are more open to considering matters of faith after a national crisis, and that’s true in New York. The Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, attendance at the great Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan jumped from 2,800 to 5,400, and on the spot, pastor Tim Keller decided to add another service.
There are other reasons for the renaissance. Despite the fact that many white Christians were leaving New York in the Sixties and Seventies because of crime and other factors, huge numbers of immigrants were coming in — and many of them Christians. They came from Eastern Europe, from Asia, Africa, Latin America. People saw an opportunity to start churches and spread the Gospel.
There was also the emergence of powerful voices raising the public profile of Christianity in New York — like Keller himself and my dear friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus.
And of course, the Gospel flourishes in areas desperate for any kind of Good News. Prison Fellowship’s new CEO, Jim Liske, told me about an amazing young man he met in New York. Michael Carrion’s parents were incarcerated. When Michael was 6, a Prison Fellowship Angel Tree volunteer came to him with a Christmas gift and a special message: “Your dad loves you, and so does Jesus.” Then he prayed for Michael. That one prayer, Michael will tell you, changed the course of his life and the life of the South Bronx, where he is now the Rev. Dr. Michael Carrion of Promised Land Covenant Church. And Michael has planted four churches in the Bronx. His goal is to plant 20 within the next five to eight years. He intends all of them to be involved in Angel Tree.
So, even if city officials keep God off the dais at a 9/11 ceremony, there’s no stopping Him from building up His Church — in New York or anywhere else.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: September 16, 2011