9/11 Remembered

We were just finishing up Morning Prayer in the Chapel of Christ the Lord at The Episcopal Church Center in New York when a staff member I didn’t know pushed open the glass doors. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” Assuming, like everyone else initially, that this was some terrible accident, we took a moment to pray for those involved and then hopped on to the elevators to get to our various office floors.

My unit had a small TV in a snack room and so six or eight of us gathered around watching the news and the terrible pictures until it dawned on us that it had really happened. And, that this was no accident.

Susanne was at a deacons’ meeting at The General Seminary some twenty blocks closer to what came to be known as “Ground Zero’ than I was and I spent the next hour trying to get in touch with her since cell phones and most other kinds of communications were spotty at best. When I did finally reach her and found out she was OK and in the midst of a caring seminary community, I wandered back into my office. As I looked down on Second Avenue there were vast streams of people just walking aimlessly up the street.

Most of them looked dazed but normal. Some still bore the ashes that had fallen out of the sky when first one great Tower, and then the second, collapsed virtually on to their own footprints in that horrible aftermath.

Bishop George Packard, chief of our Armed Forces Chaplains and Federal Ministries had his office next door to mine in those days and he was trying to get through to the Diocese of New York to assist in coordinating our outreach efforts. He posted a sign-up sheet within hours for clergy who worked at the Church Center to volunteer to serve as Chaplains at Ground Zero. In those early hours, or course, we assumed there would be many injured as well as killed….hundreds rushed to hospitals…last rites to administer…many bodies to recover…and many funerals at which to officiate. As it turned out, hospitals sat virtually empty. Only some of the survivors were injured…and many of those injured did not survive. Many were never found.

In the weeks that followed, Susanne and I took our rotation as chaplains in St. Paul’s Chapel, literally a stone’s throw from the site of the World Trade Center. Its building and graveyard were covered with feet of ash but miraculously this 235 year-old structure, a Chapel of Trinity Church, Wall Street (with George Washington’s favorite pew intact) was not structurally damaged.

But it became the primary oasis for first responders, other police and firefighters, and construction workers. Food was served…naps were taken….massages were given. Clergy counseled the traumatized young men and women many of whom (save perhaps the police and firefighters) had never expected to see anything like this. I remember Susanne sitting for a long time with a young African American construction worker who had quite literally “uncovered” the body of an airline stewardess. He would never be the same.

I guess none of us will ever be. Later, I officiated at the funeral of Tim Haviland, the 41 year-old son of one of our priests in this diocese (Doug and Betty Haviland from St. John’s in Ames.) Tim was killed instantly on the 96th floor of the North Tower on that terrible day. One of thousands…

My wife, Susanne, wrote “Prayers of the People” for the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. They were used all over the country and include petitions like this: “For those who acted selflessly that day; for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, health care professionals, first responders and construction workers, chaplains, cooks, and for ordinary citizens who were transformed from strangers to friends. For teachers and parents who held our children while in danger and who guide them now into hope…for the perpetrators of violence on that day, and for those who perpetrate violence every day.”

Our Lessons from Scripture today have to do with the children of Israel escaping their Egyptian slave-owners through the Red Sea experience…with St. Paul’s warning not to judge our neighbors…and with Jesus’ stern warning in the Gospel to forgive those who wrong us – not because they deserve it…but because we ourselves have been forgiven.

There would be lots of ways to go in preaching a sermon on those Lessons…on this occasion. And, while I believe personally, that we squandered an enormous opportunity in this country after 9/11 when virtually the whole world was in our corner and grieving right alongside us – I have no idea if we should have, or could have, responded any differently than we did. I judge no one for how they responded or how they felt after that horrendous crime was committed.

But, as I read our First Lesson today from Exodus, I could not help but reflect on the ancient Jewish Midrash on this story. The Rabbis taught that when the Israelites escaped from the Egyptians, their persecutors were drowned in the Red Sea that had temporarily parted to let the children of Israel pass through. Naturally enough, the chosen ones cheered! Miriam gathered the women together, they played their musical instruments and sang “The Song of the Sea”, and everyone danced for joy.

But when the angels in heaven began to join in the celebration, God rebuked them asking why they were rejoicing when God’s creatures were dying? “Are not these Egyptians my children too?” the Ancient of Days said. And, chastened, the angels began to weep alongside the Holy One.

This is not a day for political rhetoric or second-guessing or even congratulatory comments about our finally have “gotten” Osama bin Laden. This is a day to remember…and to weep…and to pray. We pray for victims and perpetrators…families and friends…nations and their leaders…people of all religions and people of none.

Following our service today, at noon, we will toll our tower bells in cooperation with Senate Resolution 237 asking churches to do so in order to STOP AND REMEMBER 9/11 today. In addition, some of us will be part of an Interfaith Commemoration this afternoon at 3 o’clock in Augustana’s Centennial Hall, Rock Island.

People from diverse faith groups and community leaders from the Quad Cities will come together to commemorate this 10th Anniversary with reflections and prayers. A year-long series of interfaith events in the spirit of promoting bridge-building within our community will be announced.

Perhaps this is one way to move forward with even greater strength and deeper understanding of each other. Pray that it may be so…










































Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: