Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11 Revisited: Love Your Neighbor?

I’m happy to welcome the first guest blog post to this site.

One of my goals in starting this blog was to further conversation. I’ve been thinking lately about how hard it is to see what we don’t already see, or to know what we don’t know we don't know, and reflecting on the need to really hear each other, to hear those “words half heard” that we’d rather ignore.

And I’ve been thinking about the call to live as witnesses of the Living Word, to make real, in our own actions and choices, the words we scarcely understand: mercy, grace, compassion, justice, love.

Shanksville, PA Flickr Creative Commons,
Tony, 2004 

A week ago I invited someone to consider writing a post for my current series, “God’s Green Equity.” And then, just days later, I received a Facebook message from someone else: “Would you have time to look at this? Is it something I can/should share?”

Yes. It’s something to share, and I’m happy to share it here. It reminds me that loving our neighbor is never as neat and tidy as we’d like. And it reminds me that obedience – in making odd phones calls, or sharing incomplete stories, or letting our stony hearts be softened – is one way God knits us together, and makes his own Word visible. 

Geita, the author of the post below, worked at Camp Sandy Cove with me in the 70s, and we’ve become reaquainted through several recent weekend reunions. She’s the mother of four almost grown kids, director of a summer camp in Maryland, and is ordained as a minister in the Church of the Brethren.

The sheer curtains danced in the breeze as the sound of the Sunday morning national news report played in the background. I sipped my mug of warm coffee as I browsed hangers to choose Sunday morning clothing for my four children.  The date was September 8, 2002 and news reports were highlighting the upcoming anniversary of the tragedies that occurred on 9/11. 

The mention of Flight 93 caught my attention as the news reporter shared information from the Pittsburgh FBI.  In the year that had passed, no one had called the FBI to claim the remains of the terrorists that hijacked that aircraft on a clear September morning in 2001.  This information caused the wheels of my mind to spin out of control. 

We were living in the area of the Flight 93 crash site. On the day of the attack the first mention of the Flight 93 crash on the Today Show stated that a crash had occurred in Windber, Pennsylvania. We were living in Windber. A few second later the location was corrected to Shanksville, which was just over twenty miles away.

As I began my morning tasks to prepare my children to attend Sunday School, I could not shake the thoughts that were spinning in my mind about the men whose remains were sitting unclaimed.  As I washed small faces, offered them scrambled eggs with toast and buttoned shirts onto wiggling bodies. I thought about mothers who lived on the other side of the world. Did those mothers know that they were washing the faces of young terrorists?  Did they raise their young sons to take the lives of others? Did they know what their sons were planning? My heart broke for those women. 

Shanksville, PA, Flickr Creative Commons, Tony, 2004
There is no way to dispute the evil that occurred on September 11, 2001.  But Jesus did not call us to an easy task.  He did not ask us to follow human nature that calls us to hate those who launch evil against us.  We are called to love our enemies.

As my children took their afternoon naps, I could not break free from the thoughts of the mothers who lived in a place far away.  They were mothers who could not approach the United States to claim the remains of their children.  I am certain that I gasped as I considered that maybe I should claim the remains of those terrorists.

The telltale sound of a dial-up Internet connection was followed by typing the words “Pittsburgh FBI” into the search bar on the Yahoo home page.  In the back of my mind I hoped that getting the contact information would be difficult, but there it was—a phone number. I grabbed a scrap of paper and jotted down the number and tacked it to the refrigerator.

The news reports for Monday morning continued to review the events of 9/11 as we moved yet another day closer to the one year anniversary, and they were a stark reminder of the phone number that hung in my kitchen.  Nervously, I dialed the number.  Greeted by an answering machine, I hung up.  I rocked back and forth first on one foot and then the other trying to decide how to say, “I want to claim the remains of terrorists” on the FBI’s answering machine. I made a quick decision, redialed and said, “Please return my call.”

I was almost certain that the FBI was not going to call me back.  Then I would have done my part, and I could drop this insanity. Honestly, what exactly was I going to do once I got those remains? I was buttering toast and thinking of the possibilities when my thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone.

In case you ever wondered, the FBI will return your call.  The professional sounding gentleman on the other end of the conversation listened to my request and responded, “Ma’am, you can’t just claim those remains.”  Confused, I mentioned the story on the news and wondered why they were announcing that no one came forward for the remains.  As the conversation continued, I realized that they would not hand those remains over to a housewife in rural Pennsylvania who had no relation to those men.

The morning of 9/11, 2002 was cool and slightly foggy.  An older gentleman with a flashlight directed us into a field that was now a parking lot.  My children and I got out of our van and headed toward the bus stop.  A security check point was set up.  No bags were allowed, but we each carried a small blanket.  The bus ride to the crash site was silent.

We stood near the back of a large crowd watching the ceremonies of the day. My girls held steaming cups of hot chocolate that came from a Red Cross truck. Family members of those who were killed at the site were seated near the staging area.  Throngs of patriotic music filled the air, and huge news cameras danced over the heads of those in the crowd. The moment was maybe the most solemn thing I have ever witnessed. 

Flight 93 Wall, Flickr Creative Commons, A Meloney, 2007
I stood with my blanket held close to me as I thought about the families that were now visiting the crash site for the second or third time. They had made friends in the Shanksville community, and in some way complete strangers were now neighbors.

Following the ceremony we were able to walk by the large fence that had been constructed for people to leave their thoughts at the site.  Girl Scout troops had hung cards; others left stuffed animals, religious statues, and Bibles; a multitude of artifacts covered the fence on both sides.  I remember looking at the fence and having a glimpse at the way people in our country had become neighbors with each other during the weeks that followed 9/11/2001.

I tried to block the mothers of the terrorists from my mind, but they kept coming back to me.  I knew for certain that God loved them, and try as I might to hate them, I could not find anything in my heart but deep sadness.  I felt sadness that they would never feel the love of the people of Shanksville.  They would never know them as neighbors.

Cross for Flight 93, Flickr Creative
Commons, A. Meloney, 2007
In the days that followed I shared my story with friends, and I began to realize that my desire to help the mothers of a group of men who completed acts of pure evil against our country was very controversial. The first time someone used the words “terrorist sympathizer” I gave a quizzical glance and then felt my face transform into a reflective gaze.  Am I a terrorist sympathizer because I try to love my neighbor as myself? 

As we approach the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I once again think about the mothers of those young boys who became the men that piloted planes to their destruction on that fall morning. I no longer hear the sound of dial-up as I connect to the Internet and type in the words “claim the remains of the 9/11 terrorists.” According to the latest reports, those remains still have not been claimed. 

As I sip my morning coffee and I see sheer curtains dancing in the breeze, news reporters speculate about the possibility of war, and my mind wonders what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your neighbor.”
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.