Rabbi Levin wasn't the only cleric in the [Middletown] area to communicate a strong nostalgia for the better angels of congregants' natures that were called out during the heroic phase after September 11. Reverend John Monroe, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson, remembered how in the first weeks after the tragedy, every house of worship was packed. "The closeness we felt was the one light in this. For a while we were a community with each other. We would hug and cry and talk about significant things even with people you'd see on the street. And I saw people's lives take turns they might not have taken."
The pastor recalled standing beside the rabbi a few days after 9/11 at a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Fair Haven Fields. Suddenly, the words "blessed are the poor in spirit" had new meaning for Monroe. "The sense of us, in our brokenness, hundreds of people with candles lit, coming together in that field and sharing the fear, the anger, the pain, the uncertainty-those were deep moments. Now, it wasn't happy! But it was wonderful. I remember saying, `Let's not lose this!' "
That night the rabbi and the reverend became just Harry and John, two men who recognized one another as wanting to do "soul work." Over the following year they had developed a partnership. "On Christmas Eve the rabbi sent some of his folks over to our church nursery to watch our babies so parents could attend the service, and we did the same for his parents on Rosh Hashanah." Similarly, Rabbi Levin had gotten together with Father Jerome Nolan, the Catholic priest whose church was across the street, to exchange teaching one another's children's Bible study classes. "That's a huge step forward," said Levin.
Connecting Middletown with Oklahoma City
An idea was born out of brainstorming with the rabbi and the reverend about how to expand the community of those who wanted to work on transforming the trauma into something hopeful. For eight years, Oklahoma City had been grappling with the need to rebuild and strengthen the bonds of community. Middletown was only a year and a half into its post-trauma journey and soon to face the second anniversary. It was suggested that the two could be linked as a community of shared experience.
Oklahoma City's National Memorial has an exhibit devoted to exactly that theme-"A Shared Experience"-highlighting the human response to the terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The human response in Oklahoma centered on reaching out, remembering, and educating others. If some of the isolated guardians of Middletown-educators, clergy, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, and volunteer leaders-could connect with their counterparts in Oklahoma City, they could share their common experiences and impart lessons learned.
It was startling to learn that Diane was still getting calls about rescue workers who were only now speaking up to express their problems and only now willing to accept help. The intensive workshops were still running, eight years later, and they always started out full. Like many other Oklahomans, Diane and Chaplain Poe had responded to 9/11 by heading straight to Ground Zero to offer whatever help they could. Their presence was appreciated by the families and survivors with whom they made contact, but the professionals of New York generally gave them the cold shoulder. The message was: New York knows how to take care of its own.
"When you're trying so hard to be helpful, to be turned away is horribly frustrating," Diane admitted. On hearing the idea for a Phoenix Rising Summit, her enthusiasm was immediate. "We'd be thrilled to be able to give what we've learned in the last eight years to someone else, to shorten or soften their journey."
The directors of the memorial, Kari Watkins and Joanne Riley, were equally receptive. It was agreed that a two-day summit in May at the Oklahoma City National Memorial would be an inaugural effort to develop a long-term, supportive bond between the two communities. Delegates would identify ongoing needs and plan for a return summit gathering, in Middletown, in connection with the second anniversary of 9/11.