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Religious leaders weigh just what to preach on weighty anniversary

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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One message offers hope and resilience, an expression of our overriding will to survive. Another offers guidance to many deluged in grief and overcome by memories of how the world changed in a day. For others, the message is educating youth born in that day’s horrific wake.

Whatever the format and wherever they gather, countless people in Greater Boston will turn to the words of religious leaders to grieve, remember, and, perhaps for some, begin to move on, 10 years after Sept. 11.

“You think about a sermon all week long,’’ said the Rev. Thomas Wintle of the First Parish Church in Weston, who will participate in an interfaith commemoration today on the town’s common. “This one was different. . . . It almost wrote itself.’’

Wintle and other clergy say they must straddle a delicate divide.

“First I thought I should pick a text about forgiveness,’’ Wintle said. “But I realized that many people are not ready to forgive the terrorists. I still think that 9/11 is an open wound. There has to come a point when we forgive, not for their sake, but so we can let go of the pain.’’

The demarcation of the day, he said, is analogous to historic tragedies that in their own era stilled the nation and divided lives.

Wintle said that “9/11 has become what November 22 was for my generation, and what December 7 was for a generation before,’’ referring to the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1963 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Wintle stressed that interfaith participation is a key part of the healing process, specifically involving Muslims, who experienced widespread anti-Islamic sentiment after the attacks.

“We need to improve our image in America,’’ said Imam Talal Eid, executive and religious director of the Islamic Institute of Boston in Quincy.

Since the attacks, Eid says, he has taken every opportunity to encourage Muslims to stand up and speak out against terrorism.

“I never expected to see people who are devoted Muslims doing such acts,’’ said Eid, describing the difficulty in the Islamic world of combating extremism and strengthening the acceptance of mainstream elements of the faith, which teach peace.

“Unfortunately, if the government says we are afraid of another attack, it means we are afraid of Muslim groups,’’ he said, but cautioned against politicizing a nation’s grief and sadness. “I’m concentrating on this as a day of mourning, not a day of speeches.’’

At an interfaith ceremony in Copley Square, 14 Back Bay congregations will gather outside to hear M. Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, tell of his experiences, good and bad, since the attacks.

The Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister at the Old South Church in Boston, who helped organize the event, said, “We feel that the voice of Islam has been terribly distorted over the last 10 years.’’

At the Congregational Church of Harvard, the Rev. Gregory Schmidt will turn back the clock a decade to the first address he gave following the attacks, which he said evoked questions that remain salient today.

“What do we do now; where do we go from here?’’ Schmidt said, recounting the mind-set of a decade ago. “We’ve just been attacked, do we really know who it is? I thought about what might I want to say, and part of my decision was [answering], ‘How have we changed in the last 10 years?’ ’’

At least one church leader, meanwhile, chose the absence of a statement as the most powerful remark.

At the Wellesley Congregational Church, the Rev. Martin Copenhaver said will not preach about the anniversary today. He said he plans to wait a week, when he hopes that his congregation has had time to process it.

“I want to take a step back from all the hyper-focus of the events, and maybe get a broader view,’’ Copenhaver said.

“It is on the cover of every major magazine this week. It is the subject of every news program on radio and television. At some point you do want to ask, is that helpful?’’ he said. “I’m not sure it is.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at