St. Nicholas (the real one) returning to lower Manhattan

When members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their patron saint's feast day on Dec. 6th, they may be able to mark the occasion with prayers on newly blessed ground in lower Manhattan. 

It depends on work schedules at the construction site for their new sanctuary, which will overlook the National September 11 Memorial. This is a problem Greek Orthodox leaders welcome after a long, complicated legal struggle to rebuild the tiny sanctuary -- 80 yards from the World Trade Center's South Tower -- which was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 maelstrom. 

"It's all of this powerful symbolism and its link to that Sept. 11 narrative that lets people grab onto the effort to rebuild this church and see why it matters," said Steven Christoforou, a youth ministry leader at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 

Facing the giant holes at Ground Zero, he said, it was natural to see them as tombs, as symbols of never-ending grief. Today, the footprints of the twin towers have become fountains in reverse, with curtains of water pouring into a dark void that disappears down into the underground at the 9/11 memorial and museum. 

But sometime in 2016, or early 2017, the new St. Nicholas National Shrine will literally shine -- a dome lit from within, through layers of marble and glass -- over this memorial plaza. 

Evangelicals learn to (heart) New York

Pastors have their own brand of insider humor, just like doctors, lawyers, accountants and other skilled professionals. The same is true for the missionaries, researchers and pastors who plant churches. Thus, Ed Stetzer once heard a veteran missions professor tell the following bittersweet joke at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

It went like this: How do you start a new Southern Baptist church in a big city up north? That's easy. You go into local grocery stores and introduce yourself to all of the people who buy grits.

"The point, of course, is that this is what you do NOT want to do," said Stetzer, a native New Yorker who is president of LifeWay Research, linked to the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "If you're starting churches in places like New York City, those churches need to look like the indigenous churches that are already growing there.

"A successful church plant in Manhattan is obviously going to look a lot different than one in Alabama. ... We've known that for a long time, but we've learned a lot more since 9/11."

Stetzer was referring to a faith-shaped trend that has quietly emerged in the Big Apple in the decade since the twin towers fell.

Here's the statistic that insiders keep citing, drawn from a Values Research Institute (www.nycreligion.info) study: Forty percent of the evangelical Protestant churches in Manhattan were born after 2000, an increase of about 80. During one two-month stretch in 2009, at least one Manhattan church was planted every Sunday.

The impact has been big on one scale and tiny on another. According to the institute's research, the percentage of New Yorkers in center-city Manhattan who identify themselves as evangelical Protestants has, since 1990, risen from less than 1 percent to three percent. In other words, the evangelical population has tripled.

While even 3 percent of the people living in greater New York is a significant number, this small slice means that -- from an evangelical Protestant viewpoint -- missionaries still consider the city's population an "unreached people group" when compared with other regions. Thus, in 2003 the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention pinned its "Strategic Focus City" label on New York, initiating a four-year project offering additional funds, volunteers and church-planting professionals.

It's impossible to tell this story without discussing the impact of 9/11, noted journalist Tony Carnes, who leads the Values Research Institute team. Rescue workers poured into New York City from across the nation, including volunteers from heartland churches not known for their affection for New York City.

"For the first time, to a large degree, important evangelical leaders realized that New York City was not what they thought it was," said Carnes. "They learned that you didn't need to walk down the street at night looking over your shoulder, worried that you were going to get shot. ...

"They also learned that there were already many evangelical churches here and that they were not weak, struggling and embattled. Many were strong, vital and growing."

The bottom line is that, while 9/11 was crucial, this story didn't start with 9/11.

Carnes stressed that 42 percent of the evangelical churches in the city's outer boroughs were founded between 1978 and 1999. This earlier surge was, in large part, driven by rapid growth in Pentecostal flocks led by African-Americans and Latinos. Another crucial event was the 1989 birth of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, led by the Rev. Tim Keller. Since then, teams from this Manhattan megachurch -- which has attracted waves of Asian Christians -- have planted 75 new churches across the city.

While it's easy to focus on the past decade, said Carnes, those striving to see the bigger picture need to study ongoing trends of among immigrants, young adults and others who continue, as they have for generations, to rush to New York City seeking changed lives and new opportunities.

New York, he said, remains America's great "unsettling city."

"New York is going to change you, whether you are from Texas or Africa," he said. "This city leaves you unsettled and that bring moments of pain and loneliness, but also moments that offer great freedom. ... Church leaders have started to realize that many of the people who keep arriving in this great city are seeking spiritual freedom, as well. They truly want to start over."

2010 was that kind of year in religion

President Barack Obama did something on Sept. 19th that caught many in the national press off guard. He went to church. The First Family walked across Lafayette Square Park to St. John's Episcopal Church, a parish so close to the White House that many call it the "Church of the Presidents." The Obamas set down front and received Holy Communion.

Was this really an important news story?

Timing was everything. The Obama family had not occupied a public pew -- as opposed to attending services at Camp David -- since Easter. And this church visit came shortly after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans insist on believing that Obama is a Muslim, a stunning number that was up from 11 percent in March 2009.

Obama has, in numerous speeches and his two memoirs, offered detailed testimonies about his progressive faith and why he feels at home in the United Church of Christ, a freewheeling flock that has long helped define the left wing of Protestantism. Nevertheless, only 34 percent of Pew poll participants said the president is a Christian and a stunning 43 percent could not identify his current religion. Only 46 percent of Democrats, and 43 percent of African-Americans, said Obama is a Christian.

Like it or not, 2010 was that kind of year.

One Baptist progressive was blunt. While the president must continue to defend the "American principle of religious freedom for all, including Muslims and non-believers," it wouldn't hurt for Obama to join a local church, said the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee.

"His recent Democratic predecessors did just that," noted Walker. "The public remembers pictures of President Clinton leaving Foundry Memorial United Methodist Church with Bible in hand during his presidency. President Carter taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C. ... President Obama should not do this simply for show; but an active, visible practice of his Christianity would help counter misunderstandings and lies about his faith."

It was that kind of year, with many of the most vital news stories and trends rooted in confusing clashes about religious liberty, law, history and tradition.

Debates about Obama's faith didn't top the Religion Newswriters Association list of the year's top stories, after figuring so prominently in 2008 and 2009. However, this year's No. 1 story -- fierce debates nationwide about a planned mosque and community center near New York's Ground Zero -- once again forced the president out onto a painfully familiar religious tightrope. The White House even became involved in efforts to convince an obscure Florida pastor to cancel his "International Burn a Koran Day" media event on, of course, Sept. 11.

Indeed, it was that kind of year. Here's the rest of the RNA top 10.

(2) The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti sparks relief efforts by many different kinds of faith-based groups. An independent group of Baptists from Idaho spends some time in a Haitian jail after accusations of child smuggling.

(3) Pope Benedict XVI is accused of helping to delay actions against pedophile priests in Ireland, Germany, the United States and other countries while, as a cardinal, he led a key Vatican office between 1981 and 2005. Several bishops resign.

(4) The Tea Party -- Religious Right believers or talk-radio fans attacking government spending? Mormon Glenn Beck pushes both buttons on the National Mall.

(5) The nation's Catholic bishops oppose the White House health-care reform bill, in yet another clash over public funding for abortion. The bill passes, with strong support from many liberal Catholics and other religious progressives.

(6) The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes -- for the fourth time -- to ordain noncelibate gay clergy. Once again, regional presbyteries still have the option to say "no."

(7) Hard times force cuts in many religious headquarters, from the long-suffering world of old-line Protestantism to conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family.

(8) Religious groups debate whether links exist between traditional forms of many faiths and the suicides of gay young people who have been bullied by peers.

(9) The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey finds that people with intense views about religion -- whether pro or con -- know the most correct answers.

(10) The U.S. Supreme Court convenes for the first time ever without a Protestant justice in its ranks -- with six Catholics and three Jews.

Sept. 11 -- Dreams of St. Nicholas

The first thing police found at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a piece of a wing and landing gear from American Flight 11.

Then the World Trade Center's north tower fell on the humble, white-washed walls of the tiny sanctuary across the street. It took time for work crews to find much of anything after that.

Eventually they found a paper icon of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos, but never found its frame or silver cover. They found an embroidered velvet cloth, but not the Bible it covered. They found a bell clapper, but not the bell. They found a silver hand in prayer, a wooden icon of a healing fountain, fragments of the marble altar, a twisted piece of a candelabrum and beeswax candles that survived the hellfire from above.

Church officials recovered part of a ceremonial book of New Testament epistles, with the smell of smoke in every page.

But the faithful have yet to recover the 700-pound fireproof steel safe from the office, the one containing the golden ossuary with its fragments of the bones of three saints, including their patron. St. Nicholas of Myra is the 4th century saint who in Western lands has evolved into St. Nick. Father John Romas explained all of this to workers at the New Jersey landfill as they sifted through mountains of rubble from ground zero.

"I told them about the relics of St. Nicholas and St. Katherine and St. Sava," said Romas, priest at St. Nicholas for almost two decades and a chanter for years before that. "I told them about the safe on the top floor. I described everything in detail. But our little church was gone. There were no windows, no doors, no walls -- nothing."

The priest paused, trying to find English words for his emotions.

"What can we say? Someone may have picked up a gold box thinking there would be money in it and then they threw everything else away. Who knows? Who knows? Who knows? But this we do know -- we will rebuild our church."

The parish's 80 families have every reason to be hopeful, said Romas, as they wait for city, state and regional officials to solve what the New York Times calls an "urban-planning Rubik's Cube." The goal? Build 10 million square feet of commercial space and rebuild lower Manhattan's infrastructure, while creating a towering architectural masterpiece that honors those lost on a day that changed the city, the nation and the world.

Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America has received assurances from New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the sanctuary can be rebuilt next to the World Trade Center site. Architect Daniel Libeskind's winning design for the site and memorial also includes St. Nicholas, the only church that was destroyed.

And the parish (www.stnicholasnyc.org) does control its site at 155 Cedar Street. But the old building was only 22 feet wide, 56 feet long and 35 feet high. Church leaders hope to raise funds to buy additional property to build a slightly larger church, in anticipation of new families and visitors to the Sept. 11 memorial.

The building that became St. Nicholas was built in 1832 as a private residence and even spent several years as a tavern. Greek immigrants bought it in 1916 and it was dedicated as a church the next year. Part of the church's charm was its size -- a Byzantine haven dwarfed by steel, glass, concrete and stress.

Every Wednesday, St. Nicholas invited workers and executives to spend the lunch hour in prayer.

In the future, Wednesdays will not be enough.

"Downtown New York City is crazy. It's another world. Yet when you stepped inside St. Nicholas you were taken someplace totally different," said John Pitsikalis, the parish council president. "You literally had the hubbub of the whole world of commerce only a few steps away and yet here was this small zone of peace and quiet and beauty.

"You would come in and the air would be still, the candles would be lit, there would be soft liturgical music and you would be surrounded by the icons. ... People needed that place of sanctuary and that is what we have to have again."

W Bush, classic Methodist?

CRAWFORD, Texas -- Don Elrod was spending another hard day on another production line when one of his buddies threw up his hands and keeled over, killed by a heart attack.

As a farm hand turned teacher turned carpenter turned asphalt expert, Elrod didn't know the proper theological lingo to describe what happened in his own heart that day. But this layman knew that something changed. Before long, he became a Methodist preacher.

"At some point in life everybody faces a bad situation, some kind of really big mountain, and there's no way around it," he said. "That's when we have to decide whether we're going to turn to God or not. ... It may be getting sick, or losing your job, or it may be the bottle. But it's gonna happen."

It's like that night on Aldersgate Street, when John Wesley -- racked by doubt and despair -- took a leap of faith and felt his heart was "strangely warmed." That experience on May 24, 1738, led to the Methodist movement that spread piety, evangelism and social reform throughout England and the world.

Find a flock of true Methodists and you'll find people who believe changed hearts can change the world. That's what Elrod was thinking after he stepped into his pulpit at First United Methodist in Crawford and faced a flock that included his neighbor, President George W. Bush.

Elrod thinks he knows a Methodist when he sees one.

So he wasn't surprised when he heard Bush had been named Layman of the Year by Good News, a network of United Methodist evangelicals based in Wilmore, Ky. While this honor will raise eyebrows in United Methodist sanctuaries in the Rust Belt and the West, it will draw respectful "amens" in heartland towns like Crawford, the capital of Bush country in Central Texas.

To find Elrod's church, you drive past Covered Wagon Trail, past Cattle Drive Road, over the railroad tracks, through the blinking traffic light, past the town's now famous restaurant/gas station and turn left at the First Baptist Church sign that says "Let's Roll." The Methodists are on the next corner.

In these parts, said Elrod, people even think it's fitting that Bush says God helped him win his showdown with alcohol. After all, there was a time when Methodists were known for asking rowdy people to repent of the sins of the flesh.

"I think President Bush knows what that's all about," said Elrod. "He got to the point with his drinking where it was life or death and, you know, the Lord isn't going to wait forever on you to make up your mind."

Good News magazine cited several reasons for the award, including Bush's defense of all religious believers, including "peace-loving Muslims and Arab-Americans," after Sept. 11. Most of all, the editorial said he "understands the great chasm between right and wrong and has been unflinching in calling evildoers by their proper name. He has relentlessly used this historic nightmare as an ethical tutorial for generations raised on a steady diet of moral relativism."

Some of the president's terrorism speeches have even veered into language that sounds like Wesley's sermons condemning slavery and child-labor abuses, said Good News editor Steve Beard. There is a dash of Methodist fire in Bush phrases such as: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them."

Meanwhile, the United Methodist hierarchy has consistently advocated diplomacy over Bush's military strategy. It's Board of Church and Society condemned terrorism, but opposed any "use of indiscriminate military force." Bishop C. Joseph Sprague said he doubted the Afghanistan campaign could accurately be called a "just war."

"Bishops have to say things like that," said Elrod. "Now your common man reads the Bible and he sees that even Jesus felt righteous anger when he went in there and cleaned out the temple. You can take it and take it and take it, but there comes a time when you have to stand up to the bully. Sometimes you have to act.

"I think old Joe Blow and his wife Jane out here understand that. They know what President Bush is talking about."