By Rona Cherry
Shortly before 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I received a telephone call from a friend who told me to turn on the television set—a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, and one of the towers was in flames. I stared in disbelief at the chilling images of planes hitting buildings, smoke filling the skyline of Lower Manhattan, and thousands of people fleeing dust clouds in the streets.
In the days that followed, as we relived the horror of that tragic event, I was at a loss about what to do. Like other Americans, I was filled with an overwhelming sadness and disbelief. I did not attend a church, but much to my surprise, one evening I found myself joining a candle-lighting prayer vigil in my Upper West Side neighborhood. We walked to a nearby fire department, where dozens of people had gathered to say thanks to the men who had given their lives at ground zero. We were all struggling to understand what our futures, now tainted with fear, would be like. I stood in the the crowd, tears running down my face, and I silently said, to no one in particular, “I care.”
But what did caring mean? Why wasn’t I down at Ground Zero helping with the rescue efforts? As life continued and the mellowness that had enveloped New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11 evaporated, I still couldn’t get such questions out of my mind. I felt rudderless and wanted to be with others who were yearning to make sense of our new world. I also wanted the tools to help if New Yorkers faced a crisis again.
When I decided to pursue a spiritual path, friends and colleagues were stunned. Most knew that I was not comfortable with organized religion and often declined offers to attend houses of worship. Although I had been a long-time volunteer at a Manhattan nursing home, the focus of my life had always been publishing. I had built a significant career as a journalist, working as executive editor of Glamour for a number of years, followed by a vice-presidency with the Penthouse empire as editor of Longevity, and then as editor-in-chief successively of two New York Times Company–owned magazines: Fitness and Golf Digest Woman.
In September 2002 I enrolled in One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York City, a school for adults of all denominations that trains interfaith ministers. It facilitates spirituality by teaching the wisdom of all religions and our connection to life’s mystical dimension. When I signed up, I wasn’t as interested in preparing for the ministry as experiencing a sense of community, a greater connection to the spiritual dimension of life, from an interfaith perspective. But as time went on, I changed my mind. Two years later, on a sunny June 20, 2004, I walked down the center aisle of the majestic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in my long minister’s robe, proud and excited to begin what I thought would be the next phase of my life. The following week I rushed to the New York City Clerk’s office to register as a Marriage Officiant. I then called everyone I knew—from former New York Times colleagues to long-time Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism pals—to tell them I had taken this step.
But I soon questioned the practicality of devoting myself to a full-time ministry. Social service or hospital chaplaincy positions, for example, came in the form of unpaid internships—out of the question for me. Like other graduates, I had to explore on my own what form my ministry would take and how to best integrate it into my life. My training had given me a broader window into the teachings of the world’s religions and spiritual philosophies and I now had the tools to design worship services, officiate at a variety of ceremonies and rites of passage, and counsel those in need. But, more important, I had explored my own sense of what matters and what doesn’t, and how I wanted to live in our post-9/11 world. In the end, I kept my day job—writing, working on print and Internet projects, and serving as a media consultant to nonprofits—and joined Disaster Chaplaincy Services of New York to help out, when I could, as a volunteer in crisis situations.
“A Pull I Couldn’t Ignore”
My decision was not idiosyncratic: Growing numbers of baby boomers have decided in recent years to enter the clergy. “I felt a pull I couldn’t ignore,” says Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt, the senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in Manhattan, a 172-year old Unitarian congregation. A former editor at The New York Times Book Review and author of a memoir, Unafraid of the Dark, Rosemary left New York in 1994, when her husband took a job on a Detroit newspaper. She was 46 at the time and decided to take an introductory theology course at a local seminary because she sensed that theology held special meaning for her. It did.
When her family moved back to Montclair, New Jersey, she enrolled in Drew Theological Seminary and received her M.Div. in 1999. She took a job as a consulting minister in Hackettstown, NJ, then was called to the Fourth Universalist Society. She delivered her first sermon two days before 9/11. In the days that followed, she ministered to those who felt a sense of doom and the complete shaking of their personal foundation.
Today, 10 years later, she is 56 and continues to help people find meaning in their lives. “I write sermons and I love preaching,” she says. “I love engaging with the congregation and reframing things to help people change their minds and their hearts.”
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Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt
Formerly an editor at <em>The New York Times Book Review</em> and the author of a memoir, <em>Unafraid of the Dark</em>, Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt is now senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in Manhattan. She received her M.Div. from Drew Theological Seminary in her fifties. "I write sermons and I love preaching," she says. "I love engaging with the congregation and reframing things to help people change their minds and their hearts.
Nichelle Jenkins, 42, is a recent graduate of New York City's Union Theological Seminary. She was very involved in her church as a young woman, but chose "[her] studies and basketball" over church when she was in college, and eventually became a corporate lawyer. But she never felt she had found her calling in the legal field, she says, so when she was laid off in 2007 she chose to attend seminary instead of seeking another legal position. Today she works as Union's director of admissions and financial aid, which she feels is a "ministry of service -- service to the school, service to the students."
Cantor Suzanne Volkman Skloot
Cantor Suzanne Volkman Skloot chose to pursue an acting career as a young woman, despite her deep connection to her Jewish heritage -- though she was the daughter of 13 generations of rabbis, becoming a rabbi as a woman didn't seem like a possibility. But when she had the opportunity to serve as cantor at her local synagogue, she suddenly "felt myself fully complete, whole, and integrated," she says. She returned to school, enrolling in the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale as well as the Mannes college in Manhattan to study music, and was ordained as a cantor in 2006.
Reverend Dr. Cynthia Diaz
Reverend Dr. Cynthia Diaz had already raised five children and served as the first female and Hispanic judge in Hempstead, Long Island when she found herself "called into ministry" after attending a service at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, New York. Three years later, she earned her M.Div. from the New York Theological Seminary, and received her doctorate in 2010. She now works as director of the seminary's Resource Center for Women in Ministry as well as director of Student Affairs and Vocational Discernment.