A few days ago, I wrote this post about the uproar over building a mosque and community center near the 9/11 "ground zero" site in New York City. Frequent commenter Marcus pointed out that another religious institution, St. Nicholas Church, a small Greek Orthodox community, has spent much of the last nine years trying to get their church rebuilt alongside the "ground zero" site.
The talks between the church and local government authorities have broken down over the past year. A year and a half ago, the New York Times reported the following
In July ,the Port Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church announced a tentative plan to rebuild the church just east of its original site, at Liberty and Greenwich Streets. The authority agreed to provide the church with land for a 24,000-square-foot house of worship, far larger than the original, and $20 million. Since the church would be built in a park over the bomb-screening center, the authority also agreed to pay up to $40 million for a blast-proof platform and foundation.
In recent negotiations, the authority cut the size of the church slightly and told church officials that its dome could not rise higher than the trade center memorial. The church, in turn, wanted the right to review plans for both the garage with the bomb-screening center and the park, something the authority was unwilling to provide. More important, authority officials said, the church wanted the $20 million up front, rather than in stages. Officials said they feared that the church, which has raised about $2 million for its new building, would come back to the authority for more.
I have to say I find this story complicated. It brings up all kinds of issues around how the whole "ground zero" site has been treated since 2001, and how many people who suffered there on that day have experienced various forms of injustices.
When it comes to the St. Nicholas project, here are a few issues that come up for me.
First off, the $60 million offered by the Port Authority back in 2008 for the building project. I am against government funding for religious institutions. We already provide religious institutions tax free status, and many (mostly Christian) religious communities have and continue to garner millions of tax dollars through the Faith Based Initiatives Office started by former President George Bush and expanded under current President Barack Obama. So, I find the $60 million offer for a single church building troubling. And I will also say this, if there is any government funding being put towards the controversial mosque and community center project, I stand against it. Maybe there is some justification for helping to fund the rebuilding of St. Nicholas, given it's demise in the 9/11 attacks, a highly unusual event. But how much, and in what ways exactly? I'm not sure.
Secondly, St. Nicholas Church has been taken up by the same people who are spreading anti-Muslim sentiment and trying to shut down the mosque and community center project. New York Congressional candidate George Demos recently used the church's conflict with the Port Authority as a rallying point against Islam, suggesting that "Judeo-Christian values are under attack in our nation" because city officials have supported the mosque project, but continue to block the St. Nicholas project. This is the kind of sickening drama and hate mongering that pisses me off. I don't see any evidence that leaders of St. Nicholas are desiring this kind of press, but it's sad that their church is being used to spread bullshit anti-Muslim propaganda.
Third, there are some questions about the nearly $3 million raised by the church community for the rebuilding project. A few months ago, the President of St. Nicholas' Parish Council resigned. Although the resignation was due to health reasons, John Pitsikalis repeatedly questioned where some of the monies donated to the church were going during his tenure as President. Sound familiar? One of the major issues people have been bringing up with the mosque and community center project is its funding. Millions of dollars from unspecified sources in Saudi Arabia. Large sums of money and religious institutions/spiritual organizations seem to have trouble going together in an "above board" kind of way, don't they? The Zen community need only look to Salt Lake City, Utah to find their own highly questionable funding practices.
Marcus kind of challenged me to publish a post about St. Nicholas, partly to see if I am a one trick pony about supporting religious institutions.
Well, actually, when it comes to religious institutions in general, even Buddhist centers, I find myself unsure how to approach them. I've written a lot of posts about being on my zen center's board, and taking a leadership role there. I continue to do this work, enjoying being able to contribute to our community's flourishing. At the same time, I have an ingrained distrust of institutions, especially large ones with excessive amounts of money and bureaucracy.
So, when I write that I am in support of the mosque project for example, it is due to a solidarity towards people who have suffered longstanding persecution in my nation. It is not because I'm terribly enamored with the institution they want to build.
And so, I can say a similar thing about St. Nicholas. Being the church of a small, fairly recent immigrant group (most Greeks have come to the U.S. in the last 100 years), I find myself sympathetic to their cause. Given that their religious community was destroyed in the devastating 9/11 attacks, I want to see them back on their feet, if only because the return of their community would be another sign of renewal.
In fact, it actually could be quite remarkable if the leaders of St. Nicholas paired with the leaders of the mosque project, and spoke out against hatred, and in support of their respective religious communities' needs. Perhaps, the necessary funding and local support might come through on both sides as a result of the good will expressed on both sides.
My guess is that each group will continue to toil on their own. Clearly, the circumstances of each situation are very different, but they do share the bond of being religious institutions that are part of the ground zero rebuilding controversy.
Update: I just saw the comments from New York Mayor Bloomberg and the decision to remove the final sticking point blocking the project. Might make the partnering up talk I spoke about moot.