I Had the Power of Love: A Pastor's Reflection on 9/11

Sometimes when we focus on big concepts like climate change, immigration, terrorism, we can feel like we are so little....

A few months ago, I was at a photo shoot in Seattle for a project titled "The American Superhero." Over 30 people from diverse walks of life had volunteered to dress themselves as Captain America to be captured by the lens of a political photographer and sat down for a short interview with me.

One of these volunteers was Stephen Sinclair. He came in dressed in the garb of a pastor, with a cross hanging around his neck. Stephen’s transformation stood out among all the 9/11 stories I heard. Its unforeseen change resonated with my own eventual transformation related to the 9/11 tragedy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vishavjit Singh, Sojourners: What led you to become a pastor?

Stephen Sinclair: On September 11th, 2001, while walking my dogs over to the Hudson River in the Greenwich Village where I lived, I heard the sound of two low-flying planes. I then witnessed everything that happened, standing there with my neighbors in utter, total disbelief. At one point, I thought I saw birds or pieces of debris falling from the burning towers. And it wasn’t until I looked more closely that I realized it was people jumping. And in that moment — even though I loved working as an actor and singer in show business — I knew it was time to answer the call from the God of my understanding. Soon thereafter, I went to seminary in Chicago and became a chaplain and a parish minister and many other things besides.

Singh: Tell me about the beginning of your story.

Sinclair: I grew up in rural Wisconsin, my father an American and mother from Germany. My father was an infantryman in Europe during World War II. They met at the war’s end. We were surrounded by bucolic beauty although our family life was quite chaotic.

Singh: How did you land into a career in acting and singing?

Sinclair: It was a circuitous path. After traveling in Europe, I moved back to Minneapolis. My housemates were taking yoga classes and asked me to come along. I went once and found it to be a very moving experience. From that point, this became a part of my life and I was initiated into a Raja Yoga tradition. One day after a meditation session I had this moment of realization. I could finally accept that I was gay. That felt like a big relief.

I moved to Florida. Then made my way to Washington D.C. I was waiting tables. One day, a woman came up to me and asked me if I had thought about modeling. I had no sense of how I looked. I asked if you could make money doing this and she said yes. So, I started modeling and did really well. I was featured in magazines, catalogs, and editorials. I eventually moved to New York to do modeling and was told to take acting classes so I could do commercials. I enrolled in acting programs. And it was like a perfect click. I felt so natural doing this. I got my first professional job within a year. I got roles in movies, plays, and went on tours.

And then God got in the way. I followed a new age teacher to Seattle with my partner and was there was for a while. This saved me from the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York. I eventually left Seattle since the group felt like a cult. I was a seeker. I was looking for the divine.

I made my way to Chicago to enroll in a music school to take voice lessons. I started doing films and TV roles again.

This is when I started drinking a lot. I got involved in ACT-Up since the AIDS epidemic was spreading. I was angry. That was me. I started volunteering in hospitals at the AIDS units. I moved to New York and continued my AIDS activism. I got busy with show business. I got work but nothing really took off until I got sober, which became another defining moment of my life.

I joined AA (Alcohol Anonymous) in the late ‘90s. It gave me a sense of real community. I made some of the dearest friendships with people I got sober with. I got a sense of a higher power from this community. I started praying again. I took up my spiritual practices again. I started going to retreats and monasteries. By the year 2000, I was really busy as an event planner for the rich and powerful in New York.

This brings us close to 9/11. I was in a great musical show off Broadway. We thought it was going to transfer to Broadway. But other things happened.

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Stephen Sinclair. Photo by Nate Gowdy

Singh: What transpired in the days, weeks, months after this day?

Sinclair: The tumult of the first few hours was such a life-altering event. Somebody put stereo speakers out on their street-facing window playing a three-part symphony known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki. A neighbor of mine had a house and she took in people. Everybody wanted to do something. I got on my bike to go give blood. I went to a few places and there were lines around the block. They were not taking blood because at the moment they did not need blood. In the days after, I remember at St. Vincent’s hospital there were posted signs that asked, ‘Have you see this man?’ or ‘Have you seen this woman?’. The smell in the air was so intense, full of chemicals, and horrible for days to come. Not far from where we lived, they brought in refrigerated trucks for the bodies. I remember the sound of emergency vehicles day and night down the West Side Highway.

But then life goes on. It was so important for AA people to be together. The one church in our neighborhood would not let anyone in, so I organized a group of people to gather in a park by my house. A gay men’s meeting could not be held in the local LGBTQ center since it was closed, so I had them come to the garden behind my building. I was in a show, but all the theaters went dark for a few days. Then suddenly stage managers called that they will allow theaters to open, which felt weird because it was like war, the blitz in London.

So, my cast assembled to perform. All the theaters in the city had someone from the cast say something before the curtain went up. I heard they were going to sing “God Bless America.” I personally did not like this choice. The ones who had the power to make this call also agreed. We had this sense, why would God not bless everyone? By this time there was already this narrative in the air of “us versus them’. Muslims were getting targeted. Sikhs were getting targeted. Hindus were getting targeted. Anyone who could pass for Muslim was getting targeted.

I recommended we sing “America the Beautiful.” We sang that. Everyone in the audience stood up and sang along. It was soothing. It was like a balm.

There was a moment when it felt like nothing was the same. I could not return to my old life. I felt changed by the circumstances. I had no power against the nation state, the military, the CIA. But I had the power of love.

In 2004, I moved to Chicago and decided to do this ministry thing, but I said to myself ‘How am I going to do this? I am not a real Christian’. Someone introduced me to Unitarian Universalism, which combines two very old Protestant traditions. There was a seminary in Chicago. I went to speak to the head of admissions. He was also a theater director. Turned out we had a lot in common. I got accepted and a few weeks later I was in seminary.

Singh: What actions, as part of the priestly vocation, have consumed your time?

Sinclair: Given my talents, training, and experience as a performing artist, I have been very successful at creating engaging and meaningful worship services. So much of church life is given to meetings, and dealing with the mundane but necessary aspects of seeing that a church community survives and flourishes, that I find it nourishing to me and to the congregation to have a rich liturgical life.

Worship is a time for the entire community of faith to assemble and together give thanks and praise to the Beloved. It is also a time for people to heal, learn, and be of service. I always put everything I have into making sure that everyone present in the sanctuary will somehow be moved, be challenged, and take home with them a measure of hope.

When there was a heightening of awareness around the issue of the bullying of LGBTQ youth, I engaged the congregation with that.

White privilege was a concept that was not in the consciousness of one of my congregations, at all. There was such resistance to investigating how this was active in their lives and how it affected their worldview. The Black Lives Matter movement and the leaders of color who spearheaded it gave a real impetus for us clergy to bring the discussions into our congregational life. It will be a lifelong challenge to deal with racism and the legacy of slavery.

In worship services I had a rule, “No Vanilla Sundays,” meaning that we could not hold a service if there were only white folks up front on the chancel. This also meant having not only people of color as worship leaders, but also women and transgender members participating. Because of this, word got out that we were a very inclusive congregations, which is one of the reasons we grew so quickly.

Singh: What are some salient lessons you have for everyone 18 years after the tragedy of 9/11?

Sinclair: Anything can happen. If while sleeping, two planes could pass over my building to hit the World Trade Center towers, well, anything can happen. So be ready for that.

There has rarely been more than a moment of peace in this world. We lull ourselves into complacency.

Another lesson I learned is that the U.S. has more enemies than allies. We had made every one of those enemies ourselves. We are not just a victim. Our foreign policy has created the environment that has at times fostered those wanting to harm us.

Violence begets violence. Our response to 9/11 has cost countless civilian and military lives. Trillions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on wars.

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus is from Matthew, “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” He was reprimanding one of his followers for taking a sword and going after one of the Roman soldiers.

A lot of people feel frustrated because they feel powerless. Go within yourself. What can you change about yourself to make this world better? What belief can you change in order to feel at peace? What construct have you created that has created dichotomies (us, them, black, white, enemy, ally)? What can you do to make yourself believe we all breathe the same air, even our enemies?

In your neighborhood, what can you do to foster a sense of belonging to people who maybe feel lost or are isolated or marginalized? How can you invite them into the ‘party’? How can you help to make your neighborhood safe? How can you make it literally beautiful?

Sometimes when we focus on big concepts like climate change, immigration, terrorism, we can feel like we are so little. But together we are strong. We can create a palpable movement comprised of little changes.

Start by acknowledging each other’s existence by a simple nod or smile out on the street without judgement.

We all have different duties, destinies, dharma. They are not all the same. For some people, it is to be that fiery activist who puts themselves in front of a train carrying nuclear weapons to a ship for transport across the globe. For others, it is to bake bread to feed the hungry. We have to know that about ourselves, so we don’t feel like we are lacking or not doing enough.

We have to take care of ourselves. I have worn myself out in chaplaincy, ministry, and activism. There are times we have to take a break to replenish ourselves.

Be thankful for waking up and having another day of life. Start with that gratitude. Take stock of all that you possess and take for granted. Be grateful for friends, family, job.

There are these wonderful words known as the prayer of St. Francis.

Make me a channel of your peace

Where there is hatred let me bring your love

Where there is injury, your pardon Lord

And where there's doubt, true faith in you

Make me a channel of your peace

Where there's despair in life let me bring hope

Where there is darkness, only light

And where there's sadness ever joy

Oh, master grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace

It isn't pardoning that we are pardoned

In giving to all men let we receive

And in dying that we're born to turn around

Oh, master grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace

Where there's despair in life let me bring hope

Where there is darkness, only light

And where there's sadness ever joy

Try to be this channel of change, peace, and love.

Vishavjit Singh

Vishavjit Singh

Vishavjit Singh is a cartoonist, performance artist, speaker and storyteller

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