Looking up at the sky, I noted that it was more piercingly blue than ever before.
I remember the moment. With a slightest chill breaking through the humidity, a welcome relief that I recall from my boyhood Georgia days of growing up. The humidity of August was oppressive and we would look for the coming Fall, to break away from the heat of summer. Summer, and it’s lazy days had worn out its welcome. We were glad to see it go and ready for new beginnings. Fall… my favorite time of year.
On this particular morning, I had come back from my decade sojourn to Texas, the home of my McBrayer ancestors, but a different country, for sure…. becoming more so by the day as I write this.
I was returning to Atlanta to begin my work as the leader of a large parish on the edge of the city. The bishop had told me it was now an urban parish, tied to the city. He lied. But I did not know that yet as I looked up into the sky, before going into my office. I was excited about continuing my urban ministry, if not from downtown, then in a hub. Boy, did I get that wrong.
I was to be meeting with the two lay leaders to finalize the contract for my services. It was to be a congenial gathering with two men that I had already begun to love and appreciate. As the meeting progressed, my new administrative assistant opened the door to inform us that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Having taken flying lessons while in Texas, I imagined a small plane having mechanical problems inadvertently flying into the structure. Waving off that thought, I imagined a suicidal person flying their small plane in order to make a largesse exit. And then, dismissing that as my tendency for drama, I offered a more rational explanation that perhaps the report was wrong.
She soon returned to the door, informing us that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. One plus one equaled a planned attack, The group of us went to the youth lounge where a television monitor was giving us the local news feed that would become the event now known to us by three indelible numbers and a slash: 9/11.
This 9/11 event in New York formed the contour of my first months at my New Work.
I learned soon that my high school hero, Ken McBrayer, our quarterback and West Point grad, was on one of the top floors of the Twin Towers, losing his life. I discovered later that one of the terrorist pilots had trained at a flight school near where I had trained, perhaps overlapping my own time. Later, a college student from my parish is Tyler, who was now serving as President Bush’s chief aide, called to let me know how things were going on the inside, and to invite me to a speech the President was to deliver later in Atlanta, the first formal speech after the attack.
My days were spent imagining and planning how to help my new parishioners process this disruption in their life, the rip in the fabric of their sense of meaning. To point, America lived in the illusion that we were free from such terrorist actions. That kind of stuff only happened in the Middle East. That was the reason to think twice about visiting the Holy Land and surrounding areas. It was what we called “dangerous”, “risky”. But now, our world had changed. The risk was no longer “over there” but in our backyard.
We immediately gathered that day instinctively for prayer. A Day of Prayer was called for, and gather we did, trying to make sense of this experience. I remember thinking as I was sitting in silence, prior to climbing into the oak pulpit, that this must be how clergy felt right after Pearl Harbor. How do you make sense when tragedy strikes like lightning. It was now my hour, my responsibility, my call to speak into this pregnant moment, curious as to what meaning could be birthed.
It was a time of endless moments of focus that found footing in the liturgical space. Bells tolling, periods of silence, names read….say their name! In addition to this public moment, my schedule was packed with individuals, and strangely to me, couples, wondering together how to make sense out of this. At the heart of their questions was the perennial never-resolved question of theodicy: Where was God in all this?
Theology is a tough subject to teach in crisis. While my experience tells me that our best learning comes in tight spaces, that is not necessarily so when your presuppositions about basic cosmology are lacking. Here were corporate officers of major businesses, civic leaders, counselors in the law, the proverbial brain and urological surgeons, all highly schooled in their fields of expertise, coming up seriously deficient in their conceptualization of how the world works, particularly when trying to fit in anachronistic theological language. The best they could muster was a question: why did God let this happen? or an angry protest: this is not fair!
I was aware that my response to their lamentation, “Damn straight, it’s not fair!”, would not be up to their expectations. As I was going through the same existential grinder they were, I pondered with them, asking probing question, trying to tease out their unconscious, largely unexamined thoughts on the nature of human existence. Remedial philosophy is hard-pressed in such times.
I remember the collective anger that emerged. President Bush caught the spirit of it while standing on the ruins of the Towers. “They will hear from us!” he said, with a primitive bullhorn microphone…. and the thunder rolled, as Garth would say. Over 90% of Americans supported a retaliatory action by going to Afghanistan, and so we did. We now look in the rearview mirror and wonder at the lack of planning. React is exactly what we did. And it good, righteous even, for a moment.
I remember the sense of unity that filled our country. People who had been smirking at the fumblings of my friend, W., suddenly lifted him in prayer and praise. It was fun to feel the patriotism, even at a terrible cost. Fire trucks rolling through the streets of my hamlet with the American flag flapping from its back. We unconsciously transferred our positive feelings onto our local firefighters, police, first responders out of our deep thanks for those who valiantly responded to the terrible Tower moment. People seeming to care for one another, across all kind of divides. Where the hell could you see that today?
Spike Lee. the Morehouse master of film, who proudly hails from Brooklyn, has offered a tour de force documentary on the 20th anniversary of that fateful day and the time following. It’s on HBO and worth the price of subscription. It’s four episodes, dealing with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and ends with a retrospective on 9/11 and the aftermath. I guess you can tell that I think this is worth watching. It’s not an easy watch, regardless of your political leanings. Fragility and limited thinking and decisions are evident on all sides. There’s something to piss everyone off, because it tells the truth, and, like I said in last week’s column, maybe you can’t handle it.
My favorite “pay off” scene in this documentary is that of a young black man, clearly distraught, sitting on a curb of a New York street after the Towers came down. A white policeman is kneeling down next to him, his arm outstretched, with his hand on the young man’s shoulder. You are not privy to the verbal exchange but you can decipher the care that is going on. Human to human. It moved me deeply. I have been that young man, needing a word of hope. I have been that cop, with the opportunity and ability to reach out in love to another human being.
That is so clearly in contrast with another scene, also portrayed. A white police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man, his face pressed into the street. He pleads for air. He calls for his Mama, for who else would you call to at a time such as this. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And the life went out of George Floyd…..say his name.
The truth is both of these vivid scenes portray a truth about our country. Both.
We are caring, empathetic, capable of Great Love. That is us.
We are fearful, angry, capable of ignoring humanity in the service of order. living out of fear. That is us.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, Spike lives up to his mission statement, to tell the truth “by any means necessary”. This time, he used his skills with film to tell the story of us, Us, US.
It is a story of vision, of aspiration, of brotherly love, of fear, of anger, of retribution.
When we dare to tell the Truth, to one another, and especially to ourselves, all these things are the Truth about us. Sho nuff.