News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 10, 2011

IN GOD WE TRUST: Many sought comfort in prayer, religion after attacks

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — In times of tragedy, many people turn to prayer to help them begin to cope with myriad emotions.

Many Americans who experienced the terrorist attacks of 9/11 sought comfort in prayer, religion and church families. According to area religious leaders, a faith-based response to the 9/11 tragedy was natural.

Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior for the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, said the reason people turn to prayer can be complicated.

“Death and destruction threaten our individual and collective sense of security, of well-being, of safety,” Wilkinson said. “Feeling powerless, we turn to a higher power, to God. I also believe (and experience in myself) that death and destruction ‘offend’ us; it seems to us that they just shouldn’t happen, be allowed to happen. So perhaps, when they do, we turn to prayer, hoping for answers, for clearness, for an ‘explanation.’”

The members of First Congregational Church in Terre Haute came together in prayer in the days after 9/11 as their pastor and his wife were stranded overseas.

The Rev. Don Mullen and his wife, Barbara, were in line for takeoff on a flight from Dublin, Ireland, to New York City when the captain announced that the United States was not accepting international air travel.

Church board member Kathleen Bell-Walker said many in their congregation gathered at the church to pray for the safe return of their spiritual leader as well as for the nation and its leaders, victims and families, first responders and military.

Thankfully, the Mullens were “rescued” by an Irish family who offered their home for the stranded travelers. After the pastor and his wife returned to Terre Haute, Bell-Walker said, he told the congregation that despite the distance, they had cared for each other during those days with their calls, emails and prayers.

“We came to a familiar place, we heard familiar words, we sang familiar hymns. That gave us comfort,” Bell-Walker said.

As a Marine, Pastor Matt Larimer of Rio Grande Baptist Church has a personal faith journey that revolves around 9/11.

He was in Marine Corps boot camp on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. By the next year, he said he felt God calling him to ministry, and he was putting his faith into practice when his unit was deployed to Abu Ghraib, Iraq, in 2004 after the prison abuse scandal there.

“We had chapel services at the prison, and often met in a large room with murals of Saddam Hussein on the walls. One of the most-moving experiences in my life was when we conducted a baptism service in the room with the murals,” Larimer said. “All I could think of was how many evil things might have occurred in that room, and how God was now working there.”

Jim Staggers is a pastor and military chaplain who serves in the Army National Guard following an active career in the U.S. Army.

He was an infantry officer when he left active duty to attend Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. On the morning of 9/11, Staggers was with Delta Company 2-152 out of Muncie at a training, but he hadn’t yet become a chaplain. In fact, Staggers said it wasn’t an easy transition to make, going from a destroy-the-enemy mentality in the infantry to the pulpit, where he urges people to love the enemy.

He credits the 9/11 attacks with re-centering many Americans on their religious and spiritual paths.

“I do think it drove us back to church, or the synagogue, or others to the mosque,” Staggers said. “It was about trying to find meaning, purpose, and the biggest reason is trying to find out what tomorrow’s about. It was hard to find meaning in a senseless act.”

The American military is a racially and religiously diverse organization, he said. When he served in Afghanistan, Staggers said, he found that solders would all end up worshipping together regardless of their faith backgrounds.

“We were able to put all the differences aside because, first and foremost, we were Americans,” he said, noting it is important that Americans do not see the wars in the Middle East as “religious” wars the way many Middle Easterners do.

When they come together in worship or prayer or seeking guidance, Staggers said, American soldiers tend to ask questions about life and death, God’s forgiveness for killing the enemy, or about civilians getting harmed.

“Soldiers don’t join for money or educational benefits,” Staggers said. “It comes down to their brothers and sisters and neighbors who signed up to do their part, and if they did it, I will do it.”

It says a lot about the American military that the all-volunteer forces are at or above strength at a time of war when funding is getting cut, he said.

“It becomes about not letting each other down,” Staggers said. “It’s that meaning — people going back to church — people driven back to church because their sons and daughters, and mothers and fathers, are going off to war. And they get back to a foundation, and for a lot of folks, that is a fellowship of worship and prayer.”

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or