September 11, 2001. As was my practice, I was watching the Today Show that Tuesday morning. At about 7:50 am, the coverage changed. There were dramatic scenes of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with smoke billowing from the upper floors. I watched, thinking a horrible accident had occurred. I remained glued to the screen, listening to the ever-changing thoughts of the reporters. I remember the confusion of the type of plane that had struck the building.
My eyes, still affixed to the screen at 8:03 am, teared up when the second airliner struck the South Tower. I, like so many others, sat in disbelief. A little more than 30 minutes later, reports came in that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I couldn’t move away from the television, paralyzed by the images that I was seeing broadcast. The scenes were horrifying yet riveting.
And then, the South Tower collapsed. It was a little before 9:00 in the morning.
About a half hour later, the North Tower fell. A short time later, there were reports of a plane crash in a field in Pennsylvania.
I peeled myself away from the coverage and decided, for reasons I can’t remember now, to head to the Wells Fargo branch at the nearby grocery store.
One of the tellers was using very strong language, cursing “those G-damned ragheads.” I was standing in the line. With my complexion and full beard, I have been mistaken for being Middle Eastern on more than one occasion. The teller’s anger and bias were overt. I remember turning to him and asking “Like those that bombed the Murrah Building?” I chastised him for his comments, knowing that my words would fall on deaf ears. I followed up with a call to the Main Branch. I’m sure that those words were equally unheard.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that in those moments we all watched that day and saw repeated on our televisions and in our collective memories seemed to change America. On the one hand, we took our eyes off of domestic terrorists and seemed to, overnight, focus on a single foe. The Middle Easterner. We saw the rebirth of a racism we had hoped we had left behind (although, we really knew better) back in the Sixties. And we experienced the birth of an American form of xenophobia that, in retrospect, had been gestating for decades. We merely needed a reason to deliver this bastard child.
I returned home and called the church I was (and still am) a member. I was Chair of the Church and Society Committee and felt we needed to do something in response. The church is directly across from several dorms on the Texas Tech campus. I feared for the new students, many away from home for the first time, needing a place of solace and comfort. I thought of the many foreign students studying in Lubbock, facing the possible (and likely) repercussions from angry Americans. And, I feared my own ability to become that which I detested…one who turned against the teachings of my God.
Our Pastor agreed that we should be a refuge from all that was going on around us and we put the word out that our doors would be open for those needing sanctuary. Sanctuary from the media coverage. Sanctuary from the pain. Sanctuary from the racial slurs that would certainly be coming. Sanctuary from the hate spawned, not from the evil events of the morning but rather, from the history of racial and cultural bias that only needed a reason to come to the surface.
We provided counselors and psychologists that were present every day for that week and available the following week. We had our pastoral staff available. The doors of the church were open from early morning until late at night. The sanctuary was darkened, with only dim lighting and the Christ Candle lit.
There were those who wanted an American flag posted in the sanctuary. We did not do that. Instead, we put a flag outside of the church building. After all, this was the house of God, not a bully pulpit for jingoists.
We also extended our sanctuary, as well as our protection, to our Muslim brothers and sisters, who, almost immediately, began to receive threats. Their building sustained damage during this time.
It may have been The Church’s greatest moment. It certainly had the potential to be so. There was Christian Unity. There was meaningful Interreligious relationship. Doctrinal differences were set aside. Denominational lines ceased to exist.
We stopped arguing about full-inclusion long enough to, well, be fully inclusive. We strived to love our neighbor, contrary to what was happening around us locally, regionally, Nationally and Internationally. We set aside our fears to do so, and in those moments, we experienced God.
While the media focused on the perceived enemy, the church focused on its covenant with God. Where anger, bias, prejudice, xenophobia and vengeance became the by-products of those espousing hate, for a brief moment in our history, the church became The Church.
Sunday, September 11, 2016, marks the 15th Anniversary of that day. We will watch the replays of the attacks. We will hear the stories of survivors. We will calculate the costs in dollars and in lives. And fuel will be added to a fire that is best extinguished, not fed. Politicians will spew messages to further divide us. So will some pastors.
We long ago returned to our petty doctrinal warfare. Yes, petty.
We long ago returned to our denominational divisions.
We long ago assumed our air of superiority over those we see as heathens and non-Christian.
We espouse racist, sexist, homophobic diatribes as if they are a God-given right.
And we look to 9/11 to justify all of the sinful hate we exhibit in the Name of God.
I, for one, will not do that. I will not watch the inevitable television programming. I will not listen to a sermon placing Country above Church. I will not be a lemming, blindly led to a cliff, to toss myself into a sea of hate, bitterness, and sacrilege. Instead, I will remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah that I read during worship on Sunday, September 16, 2001:
6The oracle concerning the beasts of the Negev. Through a land of distress and anguish, From where come lioness and lion, viper and flying serpent, They carry their riches on the backs of young donkeys And their treasures on camels’ humps, To a people who cannot profit them; 7Even Egypt, whose help is vain and empty. Therefore, I have called her “Rahab who has been exterminated.” 8Now go, write it on a tablet before them And inscribe it on a scroll, That it may serve in the time to come As a witness forever. 9For this is a rebellious people, false sons, Sons who refuse to listen To the instruction of the Lord; 10Who say to the seers, “You must not see visions“; And to the prophets, “You must not prophesy to us what is right, Speak to us pleasant words, Prophesy illusions. 11Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” 12Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel, “Since you have rejected this word And have put your trust in oppression and guile, and have relied on them, 13Therefore this iniquity will be to you Like a breach about to fall, A bulge in a high wall, Whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant, 14Whose collapse is like the smashing of a potter’s jar, So ruthlessly shattered That a sherd will not be found among its pieces To take fire from a hearth Or to scoop water from a cistern.” 15For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength.” But you were not willing, 16And you said, “No, for we will flee on horses,” Therefore you shall flee! “And we will ride on swift horses,” Therefore those who pursue you shall be swift. 17One thousand will flee at the threat of one man; You will flee at the threat of five, Until you are left as a flag on a mountain top And as a signal on a hill. Isaiah 30:6-17 (NASB)
I will pray as I remember the time, that short time, that the church became The Church.
May it be so again.