Standing on the steps of the Godbox at 475 Riverside drive, a Church World Service worker admonished me when I referred to persons affected by 9/11 as “victims.”
“There are no victims, only persons,” she said. We were eight months out from the collapse of the Twin Towers. I had been elected to staff the Board of Directors of the New York Disaster Recovery Interfaith Task Force (NYDRI), an ecumenical group of religious and disaster relief organizations brought together by the Council of Churches of the City of New York. We were trying to plan ahead of the curve of needs, yet often acted spontaneously. There were lots of bureaucratic and political obstacles getting in the way of our work, to the point where only no obstacles were good obstacles: Just trust your conscience, the person before you, the love beyond reproach between and beyond you. Every day we walked into walls. As a union organizer quipped, “This is the politics of grief.”
What broke down some of those walls were relationships springing up among people who might otherwise have ignored one another, distrusted, even hated one another. At one meeting led by the Interfaith Center of New York, a Sufi Muslim leader in New York explained to us how Americans were feared and revolted by those whom we dominated economically and politically, that the perpetrators of 9/11 were showing Americans how we were just as vulnerable as they, but also trying to get our attention: “Hey, we’re human, too!”
A prophet doesn’t talk about tomorrow but today and, because of today, what will happen tomorrow. In the aftermath of 9/11, our work, primarily the work of deacons, drove us into prophecy by encountering and combatting discrimination against persons whose skins were not quite white, with accents called funny, wearing turbans, and always at great risk not just from hysterical police and judges, but from ordinary folks who were afraid and feeling helpless, needing to hit back. Long Island Presbytery sent out clergy and lay folks to popular hangouts such as Dunkin’ Donuts to be peacemakers, in case someone coming in for coffee might be hassled just for existing.
Trinity Wall Street was a sanctuary and workshop of volunteers 24/7 for Ground Zero. In the backyard cemetery, a girder that had ripped away from one of the towers hurtled towards the sanctuary and was caught in the arms of a tree, where it remained. Whenever I worked at Ground Zero, I’d spend time at that tree, always seeing a sign, a promise, a reminder, that hope is always ahead of us, moving us beyond ourselves to something finer, better, more loving.
At NYDRI we knew that our country had suffered a grievous blow, its delusions of invulnerability and control punctured and deflated once and for all. If there was no ownership of that painful confrontation with our own fragility—normal for the world but not for Americans—there might be no reality checks, no healing. The wound of the Towers could fester for years, affecting foreign and domestic policies and the ordinary lives of Americans who might harbor resentment at the simple fact that they could not control existence, insisting upon their God-given superiority, yearning to make America great again and falsely associating impermeability with freedom. Around the table of the deacons we saw with prophetic eyes, that Americans who could not accept their humanness would run down a rabbit hole of self-pity, self proclaimed “victims” of supernatural gargoyles, woke cabals, and secret societies.
Less than a week after the Towers imploded, for instance, I was watching the TV news with a woman at Union Theological Seminary who turned to me and said, “The CIA did it.” Hers was an early inkling that Americans would not admit to being out of control, even of their own destruction. Trump and his acolytes of Christian, narcissistic nationalists are today those very persons representing that resentment and self-pity infecting this country, effacing the love and hope expressed by so many Americans towards one another during that period. Most of us also simply welcomed the concerns and compassion showered upon us by persons from around the world, with messages of solidarity and comfort, not so much because we were Americans but because we were simply human. And that was good enough.