September 11, 2001. Each of us remembers where we were and what we were doing when we got the news. It was a day of profound shock, sadness, and urgency, compelling us to connect with family members, draw those we love close, and make sure everyone we cared for was safe and accounted for as our world fell apart.
I remember welcoming a women’s group that had just arrived at Five Oaks retreat centre near Paris, Ontario, for a program I was leading. When I heard the news, I had to phone my spouse, Doug. He had been sitting on a plane in Toronto ready for takeoff to New York City when, a few minutes after 9:00 a.m., the pilot was directed to head back. Doug and other passengers left the plane and headed home. After realizing what had happened, Doug spent the day trying to reach colleagues who had been working in their offices immediately next to Ground Zero. We learned later that the lights went out in their building, their windows covered with black from the blast—“like black velvet”—and they groped their way together down to the street, making their way from there stunned.
Our younger son came home from high school midday (unusually) on his first break. It didn’t occur to us until much later that he was worried about his father, knowing about that morning’s business trip.
That evening we rang the bells atop our church, as we had done before at traumatic times, announcing that we would be gathering. Prayer and reflection in community was a welcome relief from the fear and reaction delivered on television.
We all have stories like this. In the opening frames of the movie Love Actually, Hugh Grant narrates over a scene of people from all parts of the world being reunited with great, loving hugs, as on any regular day at arrivals at Heathrow Airport. He says something like, “Whenever I get down about the world, I go to the arrivals area at Heathrow.… On September 11th, none of the phone calls made from those planes were messages of hate. They were all messages of love.…”
In the weeks that followed September 11th, some of us came to appreciate in a new way how the trauma of this event was all too familiar to people in other places in the world.
Watching those planes fly directly into the Twin Towers is a sight few of us will ever forget.
Nor will we forget the anguish of those whose loved ones lost their lives in an attack we could not fathom was happening.
Many of us—even those not directly affected—took the news of the attack personally. Our sense of well-being was shattered with an intensity that only such a catastrophic event can cause.
For 10 years many of us have nursed the wounds from the trauma of 9/11. For some those wounds have festered, allowing fear and suspicion to define their view of the world. Others have turned to racial and religious stereotyping as a response to the anger they felt that day.
For some the temptation to retaliate has been too much to resist. For others the demonizing of those who are “not like us” has become a much too frequent response to the pain inflicted by the events of that September morning.
All these responses fell far short of what might have been. And fortunately they weren’t the only responses. A significant number of people took the opportunity to reach out to neighbours with whom they had never had significant conversation. For our family it meant a new and different kind of conversation with our next door neighbours whose homeland is in the Middle East. The enduring tragedy of September 11th is in our opportunities missed, and missed yet today, to face what happened together and say that we will not allow the actions of a few to diminish us all.
And so, as we mark this 10th anniversary of the attack, may we join together in the hard work of healing the damage that destroyed far more than buildings and families on that day.
I sat down recently with Dr. Stephen Scharper of the University of Toronto to talk about the nature of God’s work of healing. Stephen and I met briefly in 2009 at the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, where I was a member of the World Council of Churches’ delegation. Our 9/11 anniversary conversation is the first time we’ve spoken at length.
You can find three segments from our conversation about what Stephen refers to as the geo-politics of love:
- Where were you on 9/11? In this exchange we begin talking about where we were and how the day impacted us, exploring the ways “security” has been defined in the days since and what the implications are for those of us who follow Christ.
- Has the world changed? We talk about the problems inherent in describing the attack as symptomatic of religious conflict. Imagining peace in an increasingly militarized context is challenging and necessary work for all people of faith.
- How do we move on? We begin with poetry that sustains our own life-ways of love to help us move from resentment and fear. Radical love and forgiveness are at the heart of the Christian faith, as is praying for those who trespass against us. The road toward truth and reconciliation is long, yet for Christians and many others, unavoidable.
My hope is that our conversation will help you have your own as you reflect and pray this week, personally and communally. You can also download a prayer written to mark the 9/11 anniversary.
You may also be aware that this Sunday marks the start of Creation Time in the Season of Pentecost. Resources developed by and for United Church congregations are available for your use. Orange is the colour of Creation Time, and I look forward to wearing my new United Church liturgical stole.
This week presents us with these particular, shared opportunities to speak and act upon our hearts’ longings and participate in God’s healing work.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” as Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:19) says. May the children of God be revealed as we pray and act in hope together, confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God known to us in Christ Jesus.