The Sunday after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., my and I sat in the farthest corner of the balcony at our place of worship. It was the 9:45 a.m. service, our congregation's most popular service, and normally we can arrive as it is starting, confident that our favorite pew will be vacant.
But on this Sunday, more than 500 people packed a sanctuary that seats only 350. The total attendance at our four services was 1,321, an unheard-of number for a Sunday in September.
Throughout the United States, the scene was similar. Churches, synagogues, and mosques were jammed with the weekly faithful and also with people who seldom, if ever, attend. In addition, thousands gathered for faith-based services at stadiums and arenas, state capitols and parks. Many of these services were led by Christians, Jews, and Muslims standing together with a message of peace.
These wereof the most extraordinary and most important sort.
Yes, the world changed on September 11, 2001, and the world of religious meetings changed, too.
Oh sure, we all know that religious meetings now face formidable changes regarding security, insurance, travel, and other issues. And RCM will detail those changes in the coming months.
But perhaps the biggest change for religious meetings is one that is not so obvious right now. Religious meeting planners and religious leaders face larger, more urgent responsibilities today than they did prior to September 11.
The responsibility is to provide conferences, events, and programs that will fill a desperate void felt by those without religious faith. These are people, for example, who had placed all their faith in our nation's financial titans. Now, with Wall Street still smoldering and covered with ashes, they are seeking a faith that is lasting and meaningful.
The responsibility is to provide opportunities for people to seek and find answers about their own long-standing faiths. These people are asking challenging questions that perhaps they have never confronted, questions such as: Why did this happen? Where was God? Why did innocent people suffer and die?
The responsibility is to bring together people of different religious traditions so that they can develop an understanding of their beliefs. These are inquisitive people who want to learn about worlds that they have never taken the time to understand. The other day, a friend who rarely reads more than the business section of the newspaper told me that he had picked up a copy of the Quran. He is yearning to connect with Muslims, to find out about the Islamic faith he is seeing in the Quran, a faith of peace and love.
Yes, these responsibilities always have existed for religious meeting planners, but the responsibility has changed because people are feeling an urgent need for religious faith.
Fortunately, almost all the religious meeting planners whom I have met feel that their work is a blessed calling. Now that calling includes new responsibilities: to heal wounds, to build understanding, and to help a world gripped by fear.