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The path not taken
September 11, 2001 changed the course of global history. It was stunning and shocking — the day shook the entire world.
I’m sharing two short reflections today, and I hope that you will take some time to consider the lessons of faith and resilience that opened themselves on that painful day. We needn’t revisit the violence, trauma, anger, and calls for revenge. But we must remember the soaring moments of love, sacrifice, and unity visible even through the darkened ashy sky.
The first piece is from my least-known book, Broken We Kneel. It recounts a story of my Pakistani neighbor and teaching my then-toddler daughter, Emma, about religious diversity. A few months after the book was published, I learned that this section had been extensively quoted by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a sermon on inter-religious relations.
The second is a moving documentary on a little-remembered episode in the evacuation on New York following the fall of the Twin Towers — a spontaneous boatlift. The American Waterways Operators says of this event:
“One of the most notable acts of valor that occurred on September 11, 2001 was the maritime evacuation of Lower Manhattan – the largest water evacuation in American history. 500,000 people were transported to safety in approximately nine hours by hundreds of vessels that answered a call from the U.S. Coast Guard to converge on New York Harbor to aid in the evacuation.”
Spend a few minutes today and consider how your own life was changed as a result of the terrible events of twenty-two years ago today.
Remember where we’ve been and imagine the roads not taken. Instead of learning from the best of the human spirit, we learned to see enemies everywhere. Paranoia gripped us — we sunk into fear, scapegoating, propaganda, and revenge. And, eventually, we turned what we’d learned on our neighbors. There’s a direct connection between what happened then and our domestic politics now.
We could have followed a path of love through the toxic cloud. Instead, we walked a different way.
Can we retrace our steps?
“Honoring Other Faiths” from Broken We Kneel
One of my most challenging moments of parental theological purposefulness came when my family moved to northern Virginia. My daughter, born in Memphis, was two. Back in Memphis, the world existed in three colors and two languages: people were black, brown, and white; they spoke English or Spanish. The triculturalism of the contemporary urban South was pretty easy for a toddler to comprehend.
In the cosmopolitan suburbs of Washington, D.C., however, multiculturalism exists at a level that even I found (and still find) challenging. Trips to the local grocery store and mall shocked and surprised Emma—as she heard unfamiliar languages and saw unfamiliar native dress.
Some of it intrigued her. But one thing frightened her: Muslim women wrapped in veils. Every time she saw a Muslim woman in traditional dress, she would point and say in a worried tone “What’s that, Mommy? What’s that?”
One day in late summer 2000, after more than a few embarrassments, I turned the mall tripinto a teaching moment. Emma saw a woman walking toward us covered in a veil and asked the inevitable, “What’s that, Mommy?”
“Emma,” I answered, “She’s ‘who,’ not ‘what.’ That lady is a Muslim from a faraway place. And she dresses like that—and covers her head with a veil—because she loves God. That is how her people show they love God.”
My daughter considered these words. She stared at the woman who passed us. She pointed at the woman, then pointed at my hair, and further quizzed, “Mommy, do you love God?”
“Yes, honey,” I laughed. “I do. You and I are Christians. Christian ladies show love for God by going to church, eating the bread and wine, serving the poor, and giving to those in need. We don’t wear veils, but we do love God.”
After this, Emma took every opportunity to point to Muslim women during our shopping trips and tell me, “Mommy, look, she loves God!” One day, we were getting out of our car at our driveway at the same time as our Pakistani neighbors. Emma saw the mother, beautifully veiled, and, pointing at her, shouted. “Look, Mommy, she loves God!”
My neighbor was surprised. I told her what I had taught Emma about Muslim women loving God. While she held back tears, this near stranger hugged me, saying, “I wish that all Americans would teach their children so. The world would be better. The world would be better.”
I had been intent for some time in teaching my young daughter to honor other faiths, to understand that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all Abraham’s children. Looking around the mall in northern Virginia, I knew that, as she grew, she would have to claim, cherish, and practice her own faith, and at the same time, she would have to honor—not just tolerate—the faiths of her neighbors. I did not want her to fear difference. I did not want her to demonize someone else’s religion. She needed to understand that all people are created in God’s image—and that God loves everybody—in order to be both a good Christian and a good American in this new century.
Only after September 11 did I realize that raising a child to honor the faith of others was a Christian practice with profound social and political consequences.
NOTE: Sometimes a reader will protest that veils are forced submission, not religious choice. Of course that is true. In the same way, Christian conversion and baptism were often forced on unwilling subjects. Religion — even the most sacred of rituals and practices — can be used in abusive ways. There’s religious choice from commitment and love; and there exists religious coercion. Teaching people to discern the difference is important in a religiously pluralistic society.
Boatlift: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience, a short documentary (12 minutes).
We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge
of a trembling nation when it went down.
Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry
by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed
by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.
It was coming.
We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their
long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen . . .
— Joy Harjo, from “When the World as We Knew It Ended,” please read the ENTIRE POEM HERE
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I will never forget seeing what hate can destroy…
I will never forget seeing what love can heal.
― Steve Maraboli