The buildings that house Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church and Congregation Gates of Heaven in the upper Union Street section of Schenectady are literally within shouting distance of each other.
And for one week 20 years ago, after Islamic terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, there was very little — distance or doctrine — separating the two houses of worship. The Rev. Robert Long, who had started at Eastern Parkway Methodist in 1994, and Rabbi Matthew Cutler, who joined the temple just across the road a year later, were of similar minds.
“Matt Cutler called me the next morning and asked me, ‘Bob, would you join me in going to the Afghan mosque and assuring them that they have our support and prayers?’” remembered Long, who retired from Eastern Parkway in 2003. “So we went up there together and each spoke. We wanted to do something ecumenical, something from an interfaith perspective, and reach out to the entire community. And we wanted to encourage everyone from indiscriminately taking some kind of action out on someone of a different faith.”
The act of compassion was one of many things the two congregations did in unison that week.
“We gathered the very next night, as a community, us and the Eastern Parkway Methodists, our two congregations in a show of solidarity,” said Cutler, still the senior rabbi at Congregation Gates of Heaven. “We came together to support each other, and we both had open hours all that week in the sanctuary so that people who needed to talk could come in and try to get a grasp on the magnitude of what was going on.”
For Cutler and members of the Jewish faith, 9/11 happened right before the start of the High Holy Days.
“All the sermons I had prepared were just thrown out the window,” said Cutler. “You couldn’t preach what you had planned. There was such an aura of heaviness, and the concern was so great you had to address it. You had to refocus and retool what you were going to say.”
At Eastern Parkway Methodist, Long, who grew up in Latham, kept the main sanctuary open from 9 in the morning until 9 at night each day throughout that week. Like so many others, his first reaction upon hearing the news of the attacks was disbelief.
More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section
“My daughter called me on the phone and I thought, ‘This can’t be happening,’ ” he remembered. “I had to turn on the TV and see it to believe it was true. I still couldn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening. So we kept the congregation open from 9 to 9 and had people on two-hour shifts to just sit there and listen to what people had to say. For those who wanted a dialogue, we talked about pain, hurt and disbelief. We were still all fearful, and we had people of several different faiths come in.”
Cutler, a Long Island native, was having a cup of coffee with a friend when he heard the news of 9/11. His initial reaction was concern over his brother, who worked in New York City, but those worries were quickly dispelled.
“I just wanted to make sure where he was and that he was OK,” said Cutler. “But then people in our congregation all had family and friends working in New York. We had people who worked for the state and were down in New York at different functions. It seemed like everyone knew someone they were concerned about, and we all knew of at least one person who did lose a friend or a family member.”
Strength of community
For people of the Muslim faith, the show of support extended to their community by people such as Long and Cutler was very much appreciated. They were just as horrified as anyone about the events of Sept. 11.
“There were hate crimes against Muslims in places across the nation, but in the Capital District I know there was not much to really nothing that was negative done toward Muslims,” said Genghis Khan, a Queens native, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate and General Electric engineer who moved to Schenectady in 1991. “That showed us the strength of the interfaith community in our area and just the mentality of this region.”
Khan, who has taught youth classes at the Islamic Center of the Capital Region in Schenectady and serves as the Schenectady County Jail’s Muslim chaplain, became more active in telling others about Islam following the 9/11 attacks.
“The events of 9/11 was one of the reasons why I felt I needed to do more quality teaching about Islam to the older group of kids in our community,” said Khan. “We were all shocked and horrified, scared. It was nice that we in this area were able to feel safe and secure in our community, and more importantly it was a pathway forward to talk about Islam and peace to the entire community. It set the stage for moving forward.”
Humera Khan, no relation, had just moved to Niskayuna from Ohio a year earlier. A native of Pakistan, Khan and her family had moved to the U.S. from Great Britain six years before 9/11, because, she says, they never felt comfortable there.
“I grew up in India, moved to the [United Kingdom] with my husband and at the time Margaret Thatcher was the prime minster, and there was a lot of discrimination,” remembered Khan, a member of the Islamic Center of the Capital Region in Schenectady as well as Clergy Against Hate and other interfaith groups in the area. “That’s why we came to America. We had just moved to Niskayuna with our young son and daughter, and our neighbors were wonderful. Some people were pointing fingers at Muslims around the country, but our neighbors, this whole community, came to us and said very supportive things. That’s why we love America. It’s a melting pot. Everybody welcomes you.”
In 2017, Albany Post No. 105 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States named Humera Khan the winner of the Four Chaplains Brotherhood Award for her work with refugees, victims of domestic violence and members of the interfaith community.
“We all have to work together, and as Muslims we have to show people who we are,” she said. “No religion teaches a person to kill each other. That is unbearable. After 9/11, I began presenting myself to people, telling them about Islam and how it is a religion of peace. That’s how I got involved with the interfaith community. They asked me, ‘Why don’t you come join us.’ ”
‘People were scared’
Like the Congregation Gates of Heaven and Eastern Parkway Methodist, many churches in the Schenectady area opened their doors that week. Johan Bosman, currently senior pastor at Christ Community Reformed Church in Clifton Park, was an associate pastor at First Reformed of Schenectady in the Stockade in September of 2001.
“I was on my way to the office at FRC when I heard about a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center,” remembered Bosman, a native of South Africa. “When I walked into the office the second plane crashed, and that was when I, like millions of others, realized that this was more than an accident. We watched on TV for a while before the ministers met to discuss how we as people of faith would respond.”
Bosman said that Robert White, then the senior pastor at FRC, decided to cancel the scheduled consistory meeting that night and instead sent out a congregation-wide email that there would be a special worship service that evening.
“I still remember the somber atmosphere at the service that Tuesday evening,” said Bosman, who got a phone call earlier in the day from a concerned relative in South Africa. “All three ministers at FRC had a leadership role. We read from the Bible, we prayed. There were many unanswered questions and many tears were shed in silence.
“Even as a noncitizen at the time, the attacks shook me to the core, and in spite of having grown up in my own violent country I sensed that the country felt an unusual vulnerability,” continued Bosman. “People were scared. It was clear that our two young children — ages 10 and 7 at the time — experienced fear and uncertainty as well.”
Bosman remembers that White’s sermon the next Sunday warned his parishioners not to let “fear drive Americans to prejudice, stereotyping and hate crimes against others simply because of their ethnicity, nationality or physical appearance. Will violence ever beget anything but more violence?”
The right words
For faith leaders, once they get over the shock of an event like 9/11, helping members of their church, temple or mosque deal with the loss of a loved one quickly becomes the top priority. And very often, the Rev. Richard Carlino concedes, finding just the right words to say to make life a little bit easier is the toughest part of the job.
On Sept. 20, 2001, however, nine days after terrorists attacked America, Carlino got it right. Before a packed house at St. John the Evangelist in downtown Schenectady, he addressed all first responders in the large sanctuary and said, “For your bravery, your courage, your sacrifice — we love you.”
Twenty years later Carlino, now the senior pastor at St. John the Evangelist and St. Anthony’s Church in Schenectady, remembers the event like it was yesterday.
“At the end of my homily, I told them that I had one message for them and that was, ‘We love you,’ ” said Carlino, who will also participate in a 9/11 service this year at Waters Edge Lighthouse on the north bank of the Mohawk River in Glenville. “We hold more than 1,400 in St. John’s and the place was packed that day. When I finished, when I told the firemen, the police, the doctors, the nurses, all the first responders that we loved them, everybody just stood up and started applauding. It was amazing.”
Along with the words of Carlino, the crowd that day at St. John’s heard from William J.J. Gage, president of the Schenectady Permanent Firefighters Association and then-Schenectady Police Chief Greg Kaczmarek, while Patrolman Richard DiCaprio read the Police Officer’s Prayer and his colleague Kevin Green sang “Ave Maria.” Also with a musical offering that day was the Schenectady Pipe Band, which had marched with the firefighters and the police from the Veeder Avenue station to the church on Union Street.
When the terrorists actually attacked America on Sept. 11, Carlino was making his rounds as the Catholic chaplain at Samaritan Hospital in Troy.
“I had just begun a five-month hospital ministry at St. Mary’s and Samaritan in Troy the day before, and I was at Samaritan when I got a frantic phone call about the attack,” remembered Carlino. “We turned on the TV and watched the horror on television. Everyone was quite upset.”
Then, as members of his parish dealt with the attack and its aftermath, Carlino immediately started the process of helping people through their grief.
“When a loved one passes away, I try to respond with the normalcy of the memory, but it’s hard to wipe out the sadness that comes with those memories,” said Carlino. “They’re struggling with the pain of the memory, and all you can do is try to heal that memory. People come to me in a lot of pain, and healing doesn’t mean you wipe out the memory and the hurt. You just help people turn down the volume a bit so they can deal with things.”
More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section