Today marks the 17th anniversary of the horrific attack by Al-Qaeda. We lost around 3,000 folks in that one attack, the worst since Pearl Harbor. It galvanized the nation. I know because three after the event, I was there in New York City. Not to minimize the damages in Washington, D.C. nor the incredible heroes of United Fight 93, New York bore the brunt of the attack. On September 11, 2001, I watched with anger and pain as I witness the fall of those monuments to American financial and architectural greatness. I saw men and women leaping from the upper stories choosing the quick release of such a death to the terror of dying in flames or amidst the crushing weight of millions of pounds of mortar and steel. I watched with wonder as multitudes marched away from the area, some wearing suits, others wearing jeans, some carrying briefcases and backpacks while others carried shoes and handbags. The most intriguing thing for me was what had happened as a result of the tons of dirt and debris that blew threw Manhattan like volcanic ash. The people leaving the area were covered in it. Folks were not white, black, or brown. Everyone was a shade of gray.
When we arrived in New York City on September 14, we took a staging position at Metro Baptist Church in the Hell's Kitchen area about two blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I worked from there for three days. On Saturday, I went to the Lexington Armory where people had posted pictures of missing friends and relatives. Thousands of them. Inside the armory was a respite center and an area for the relatives of the missing to bring in anything that might provide DNA evidence to be matched with recovered remains. I met Kevin there. Kevin was in healthcare and worked at St. Vincent Hospital. He appeared shell-shocked. After pulling a shift, he was told that he was needed at the Armory, where they had set up a make-shift morgue. He had been working and sleeping at this location for 72 hours. His job was to photograph body parts with tattoos, scars, and birthmarks to help with identification. I could only imagine how emotionally brutal that would be, even for a healthcare worker. It just wasn't suppose to happen on this scale. I helped Kevin connect with his mother in Atlanta that day. (one of the reasons I returned to find a $700 cell phone bill. I was out of my coverage zone) As soon as Kevin heard his mom's voice, he broke into tears. Moments later, when he handed the phone back to me, his mother said, "I just wish I could be there to hold him and pray for him." I suggested that as I laid my hand on his head that she pray and then I would pray. When I left Kevin that day, the shell-shock appearance had given way to joyful weariness knowing that his work from that point on would be God's work in behalf of the families of the missing.
On September 17, as a Law Enforcement Chaplain and Certified Crisis Response Trainer for the National Organization for Victim Assistance, I was redeployed to the Port Authority Police Department Journal Square Precinct in Jersey City. NYPD is a department with around 6,000 sworn officers. They lost 27 officers that day. PAPD is a department of around 1,200 sworn officers. They patrolled the property on which the Towers were located. That day, they lost 41 officers. 13 of those were from the Journal Square Precinct. Over the next four days, I spent over 48 hours in the squad room and their respite tent at Ground Zero. It was a humbling, gut-wrenching experience. No one had personal time off. If you weren't pulling a regular shift, you were at Ground Zero ready to work the bucket brigade when the horn sounded signaling that human remains had been found. I watched with reverence when the buckets were passed along from the site to the perimeter. From there, they would be taken one of the morgues.
343 FDNY personnel, 68 NYPD and PAPD personnel, and thousands of civilians perished that day. Tens of thousands of relatives and friends still mourn the losses. BUT, the nation came together. In NYC during that week, crime was almost non-existent. Yes, we were focused on the enemy who perpetrated this heinous act, but we were even more focused on getting the citizens of NYC moving toward a new normal. There were responders there from almost every state in the country. The perimeter was lined with their respite tents. At barriers around Ground Zero, there were thousands of civilian citizens who just came to try to help in some way. During my week there, I had conversations and even prayers with Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and even an atheist.
Now, I can't speak for anyone else, but I do know that for us who claim to follow the Lord Jesus, we are held to a higher standard by the Lord Jesus. There's an expectation that our anger, bitterness, and hatred will be short-lived. In Matthew 5:43, Jesus said, "You have heard that the law says, 'Love your neighbor' and hate your enemy." Wait! Where did that last part come from. The first part comes from Leviticus 19:18. But the Pharisees had interpreted Psalm 139:19-22 and Psalm 140:9-11 as permission to hate their enemies! Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 5:44-45, But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. . ."
This is not to say that we must trust those who seek to do evil against us nor is it to suggest that justice should not be served. It is to say that anger can calcify and when that happens, it blinds us to the reality that even our enemies are created in the Image of God. Lifting a quote from Chaplain Chris Wade's blog of September 10, Seacoast Pastor Darrin Patrick said this: "In unrighteous anger, you want pain and you want punishment. In righteous anger, you want redemption, you want restoration."
As you recount your memories of 9/11 today, remember the families of those who died that day. Remember those who have fallen in battle against our enemies. Pray for their families. Pray for our military, our first responders, and especially our government leaders. The government is so fractured over ideological differences that both parties seem destined to move to further ideological extremes. Our inept leadership often pushes us toward greater division rather than toward finding the things that unite us.
Most of all, remember to obey the words of Jesus from Matthew 5 and act as true children of your Father in heaven because one day, He is going to make everything right. One day, EVERY knee will bow and EVERY tongue will confess that Jesus IS Lord to the glory of the Father. For now, our responsibility is trust,obey, and pray.