Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Recalling 9/11 18 years later

I remember where I was. I had just put my daughter on the school bus. My brother called to tell me that my niece was in the hospital about ready to deliver a baby boy. I was loading my bags into a car to go to the airport. I was going to fly to New York City to interview for a chaplaincy position--- but plans changed when the attacks happened and the planes weren't flying anyway. I called them and said something like "you folks are probably up to your eyeballs in alligators, so call me when we can reschedule." 

They did. I went in almost a month to the day later and the folks were still pretty shell-shocked and the interview was pretty perfunctory and did not lead to a job. Without much bidding on my part, the conversation would shift from them talking about me and my skills, to the group and their experience. After weeks in intensely shepherding others through this time, they had yet to fully process their own emotions, which was a completely normal and natural response, but still unsettling for those experiencing them.

But the trip wasn't wasted. A week or so after the attacks I got a call from a person who did employee health for the Salvation Army. He had been given my name as someone trained in Critical Incident Stress Management. They were putting together a debriefing and some other emotional and spiritual support services for their personnel who had been on-site at Ground Zero since the day of the attacks. A lot of these folks had been working non-stop for a month and needed to go home for rest. But first, they needed to process their experiences. 

So a team was put together, mainly from the upper mid-west... that was because all the trained CISM personnel and teams in the New York and Washington areas were busy, and a few of these very folks were the folks that we would be de-briefing! 

So after my rounds of interviews in New York for the job that would never be, I came to  Allentown for a series of small group debriefings, large group training sessions, and one on one meetings. 

Flags in Marietta, OH after 9/11
The whole experience was a rush of images and emotions. I had to marvel, because I wasn't even there... I was a distant witness watching things unfold on television or over the car radio. I could not imagine what it was like for people living through it. And the closer I got to the city, the more intense things became. 

I saw lots and lots of American flags on the drive out from Ohio to Pennsylvania through West Virginia. People put up signs and impromptu memorials. Staying with relatives who lived between Philadelphia and Reading, PA, I took the train into New York. I was struck by the big plywood construction barrier inside Penn Station, that was now covered with signs and posters of peoples names and pictures. People looking for the lost or missing, which was taking on more and more the look of a memorial.

Some of the things I saw were disturbing... scrawled signs at roadsides or in front lawns as I drove encouraging us to kill all Arabs and Muslims, often using unashamed racist language. There was one billboard that stood out to me because it was so angry: the text read "Your courts, your schools, and your government are anti-Christian!" pointing people to an 800 number and some kind of (so-called) ministry. Seeing that while driving through Appalachia gave me a shudder... were we growing our own form of Taliban? It made me wonder about the depths and complexity of the hatreds in our world.

One of the things that I recall the most was the signs demanding revenge or retribution were thickest farthest away from the disaster. The closer one got, the more often the sign asked for prayer or patriotic support. Of course, in the city there was wall of pictures of the missing.

Meeting people who had rolled up their sleeves to do the impossible work of rescue, recovery, and disaster response, was a whole other matter. These people were not filled with hate but with a kind of determined compassion to find life wherever they could. The thing about chaplaincy and trauma work with first responders, medical personnel, and those who work in public safety is that one is blessed to witness people who rarely forget their humanity, no matter how bad things are. In fact, it was the sensory overload of so much awareness-- so much compassion for so much pain in so little time-- that was at the heart of the stress they were experiencing. 

Being a priest and chaplain to such people, even though we had never met before, was humbling. Because of the rawness and immediacy of their experiences, they rarely had difficulty connecting the dots between their work and God's mercy, or of the mystery of love in the face of evil. They rarely used "god-language" but they told sacred stories. Sometimes one would get "why" questions, but way more often I heard, unbidden, stories of the holy showing up in unexpected, ruined, places. 

My little team worked three different groups who were being "de-mobilized" for about a week. Other teams did more. There were that many volunteers who had gone to Ground Zero. My particular groups were comprised of people who had worked nearest the disaster scene for the longest hours. None of these folks were amateurs. They had all worked everything from house-fires to to landslides to tornadoes to hurricanes. But every one of these said that this was the most devastation they had ever witnessed in one place and the most intense. They told stories of what stood out for them: one person helped the local humane society care for the dogs brought in to search for survivors and later the ones brought in search for bodies. Another talked about giving first aid to firefighters and construction workers who had been digging through rubble sometimes with bare hands. Others spoke about the hours spent talking to the workers from the towers and the surrounding neighborhood as well as residents. One person worried that he might be inhaling the very remains he was searching for amidst the ash and dust of the site. A chaplain spoke about his work with members of the city department of sanitation and what it was like to sweep up all that office paper that littered the streets after being blown out of the buildings. 

After I came to my parish, I found that some of the experiences of that day would filter into our life from unexpected places. I did spiritual care for two dying persons who were both deeply touched by 9/11 even though they were never in the Twin Towers. One had a scheduled breakfast meeting at Windows of the World, but his doctor called him the day before and insisted that he go to his office on Tuesday morning. This caused him to cancel the breakfast meeting, which saved his life and the lives of those he was to meet. But the doctor needed to tell him that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that he would not recover from. 

Another parishioner worked in the North tower but got out when the first plane hit the South Tower and, unlike so many others, did not go back in. She worked near the bottom of the tower anyway, so all of her co-workers survived the attack. Still, when she left lower Manhattan covered with soot, she was either shunned by people who knew where she must have been and were frightened or else doted up and cared for by many others. 

Yet another parishioner was just settling into a new office in New Jersey having the week before moved from a former office in the Twin Towers, to witness the attack from across the river. 

Our diocesan clergy day later in September, 2001, included a summary of a conference taking place at Trinity Wall Street with the Archbishop of Canterbury when the attacks happened. We heard of how they were evacuated and sent to South Ferry where they had no place to go and how he was taken away on a ferry boat but could not get back into the city to get his stuff from his mid-town hotel room. 

I interviewed with my present congregation's search committee just before the attacks by teleconference and met with their representatives a week or so afterwards when they came out to hear me preach but before my trip east. It was strangely hopeful to hear them talk about their 9/11 experiences and then turn to talk of the future of this parish in this community in the same conversation. 

Looking back over the last nineteen years, I am struck at how much people have healed and how little it takes to bring people back to that moment. For people who have been born since then and are only now reaching adulthood, the events are at once abstract and defining. They don't know what it was like, but they do not know a world "before 9/11."

Our parish hosted community prayer services on the first and tenth anniversaries of the attacks and this coming weekend we will hold an interfaith prayer service in our sanctuary. For me, the day is a remembrance that can never hide or distort the real sense of horror and fear of the attacks, and also it allows to recall and reclaim the resilience that marks so much of our response at the time and in the nearly two decades since. 

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