by Stephen Russ
On September 11th, 2001, Peter Gudaitis left his apartment and boarded the subway just like any other day. When he left that morning he was the Associate Director of Episcopal Charities, responsible for overseeing funding for soup kitchens, after school programs, and other Parrish-based community outreach programs. By the time he got to work the towers had fallen, and everything had changed.
Peter, a recent seminary graduate and former campus minister, found himself directly involved in providing services for those affected by the attack. The Episcopal organization jumped in head first; hiring case workers and raising funding for families, training clergy to be chaplains, providing pastoral care, and turning St. Paul’s chapel into a place of food service and medical care for recovery workers. All of this work was new to nearly everyone involved.
“New York had never had a significant disaster in its past, so the experience to lead those efforts was not really there,” Peter told me in a recent interview. He had come from campus ministry and EMS chaplaincy, but thought he was through with emergency services. Despite only limited disaster experience, Peter found himself in a central position and, as he said, “learning on the job.”
Those significant changes turned out to be only the beginning of Peter’s story. As the need for relief grew, the services provided by the Episcopal diocese and it’s congregations grew with them. They began to learn what kind of relief efforts other faith communities were taking part in. Peter recalls how interfaith efforts expanded from there: “That [realization] began this evolution of meetings and collaborations that first emerged into practical conversations about what can we do to leverage limited resources, partner on training, and combine services.”
This practicality, while necessary considering the scope of damage, did not emerge without problems: “We were not used to working together in New York City,” recalls Peter. As a result, not all efforts worked out, but in a year and a half’s time Peter’s Episcopal group and the others had found thirty groups who shared what he calls a “theology of service.” In order to better manage their efforts they formed a non-profit interfaith coalition named New York Disaster Interfaith Services. Peter’s understanding of the interfaith issues led to him being named the CEO. NYDIS would become the cities’ largest faith-based disaster service partnership.
For Peter, these changes were significant because interfaith and disaster work weren’t even on the radar of what he saw himself doing: “I never felt like it was part of my vocation. But, like with many things, God brings it to your doorstep and you have to decide whether to open that door and accept this gift, responsibility, or challenge, whatever it is; it’s probably all of those things.” He chose to embrace the events as a new opportunity, but that didn’t make the transition any less difficult. Peter found himself in a place where he had to examine his own identity. “I think the hardest thing was leaving what I always saw as an Episcopal ministry as a Christian, and move into an interfaith ministry as a Christian who happens to be Episcopalian,” Peter said. “Your 'Episcopalianism' sort of becomes the least of the considerations because while part of what you’re doing is representing your own faith tradition, you are [also] representing Christianity in general in those interfaith conversations.”
What was unique about NYDIS under Peter’s leadership is that it wasn’t interfaith in the usual sense: “There’s nothing “interfaith” about it… One of the challenges of the interfaith movement, much of which feels like an amalgam of theologies, faith communities, cultures, and practices, is forming something that’s supposed to mean something spirituality to everybody. To me, that’s quicksand, because I really think interfaith ministry is about allowing distinct faith communities a place in which they can express their uniqueness but have it appreciated, understood and valued by one another.”
As a result, NYDIS functioned as a partnership; communities working together for the same goal, but not combining with each other. “I feel like I’m an Episcopalian who’s leading an interfaith initiative of many faiths,” claims Peter, “but I don’t feel like I’m an interfaith leader, because I think that somehow means that I’m a religious leader for all faith communities, and I don’t really think that’s who I am.”
With his unique vision for interfaith ministry, Peter soon took his ideas national. He became the president of NDIN, the Natural Disaster Interfaith Network, which desires to connect partnerships like NYDIS with each other to allow for more resources for everyone. It also serves as an advocate for the idea that these disaster recovery initiatives should be, as he said, “intentionally inclusive of all faith communities.” The group is fighting an uphill battle, as these kinds of true partnerships are not common. “I unfortunately think there is still enough misinformation and distrust, and a lack of knowledge that exists in many communities, where only Christians work together or only Muslims work together, and it’s hard for them to sit around the same table and do effective human services together."
It is here that Peter sees a unique opportunity with disaster work because of how practical it is. The need has allowed interfaith groups to move beyond conversation to providing actual services. Many Christians have realized that they may not be the best equipped to provide mental health or spiritual counseling effectively for Jewish people, among other examples. Having these faith communities come together provides a better opportunity for everyone to receive the services that they need.
The partnership also works towards unity for another reason – providing a voice when secular and government services can’t fulfill the needs of the minorities in a community. Ultimately, they want to provide the same level of care to these minorities as everyone else receives. According to Peter, these problems exist all across America. “We certainly hear often in the office from people expressing concerns about how racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities struggle to find appropriate spiritual care, mental health services, and case management services. [NDIN is] called upon by government agencies, non-profits, and faith groups to provide consulting services or training communities in communities where there are disparities or where there are good efforts in place but they want to improve the quality of the care they are doing.”
For Peter, one of the major challenges has come from the reaction to Islam in the wake of 9/11, and it is something he feels especially passionate about. Many Muslim communities in New York were some of the earliest participants in the interfaith movement for disaster relief, with one of NYDIS’s very founding communities being Muslim. Peter has watched attitude change towards Muslims over the years since 9/11, and it is something that he spoke very openly about. “In those early years locally and nationally, 9/11 was perpetrated upon the United States by radicals who happened to be Muslims, and there wasn’t a sense that the NY Muslim community bore any responsibility for 9/11 and there wasn’t any level of mistrust between NYC based communities and Muslim based communities. There has been this sort of evolution towards equating Islam with terrorism and American Muslims with terrorism that did not really exist in the first few years after 9/11… and it is fracturing the wellness of our community and interfaith relations."
Peter continues: "It is totally disrespectful to the legacy of what American Muslims went through to support New York and the nation after 9/11 and I find it repugnant… I say that with such passion because I’ve seen the way the Muslim community came together to support the city after 9/11 and they raised millions of dollars and provided thousands of thousands of families with case management services and cash assistance grants, and not only Muslim families, American families.
"To have fellow Americans turn their backs on them and disrespect what they’ve done is dishonest, and I think as a Christian and as their friend, I have to stand and say 'that’s a lie.' I may not share their beliefs and their specific theology, I may not share their culture, but we do share their Abrahamic God as Christians, as much as we do with Jewish people, and I think it would be dishonest to not speak the truth and defend my Muslim colleagues and friends who I know their hearts, and their minds, and I value them and their partnership...”
Peter’s intense passion for interfaith work is evident in these quotes. His desire to provide open and fair disaster relief is strikingly evident, making him a very inspiring and moving person. It was a passion born in the wake of an awful tragedy, as before September 11th, disaster relief was something that he never saw himself doing, and especially not as an interfaith leader of any kind.
Now the interfaith disaster relief community has found a leader, someone who cares for the needs of others without discrimination, and who understands what must happen in order for all of those needs to be met. Through the events of 9/11 Peter found a new calling, one with a lasting impact on Christians, Muslims, Jews, and everyone in between.
Peter’s story is an inspiring reminder that good can come from tragedy, and that we can never know what God has in store for our lives.
You can read more about Peter Gudaitis and his story in Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal After 9-11.
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