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.
On the flight to Oklahoma City, the delegation of a dozen community "angels" from Middletown and Rumson passed through a hypnotically beautiful electrical storm. It was tornado season in the Southwest. The plane pitched and rolled. The rabbi chewed his gum. The imam rubbed his feet. The police chief cracked jokes. They were all getting to know one another's defenses against fear.
In the morning the delegation was awed at rounding a busy street corner in the center of downtown Oklahoma City and all at once being enveloped by the serenity of the memorial. Inside the museum they met their counterparts and introduced themselves, each one needing to tell his or her story of the personal connection to a terrorist event. It took less than two hours for the masks of composure to begin to come off.
Father Nolan was no less naked about his confusion and personal neediness. "I'm still trying to deal with it on many levels," he told the group. "I don't think I've been to Manhattan since nine-eleven. I certainly have not had any desire to go to the site. It's overwhelming to me. I really do have to question, how does this happen? How does a human being do this? What do we do for the people who are left? I don't know. I have to deal with it myself."
Father Nolan's struggle to explain an event that defies our moral understanding was reminiscent of the obsession of Brother Juniper in Thornton Wilder's classic moral fable The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The novel begins in 1714 with five pilgrims on foot crossing "the finest bridge in all Peru" when, unthinkably, the bridge collapses and all five plunge to their deaths. Contemporary reactions to the events of 9/11 are not unlike Brother Juniper's reaction to the collapse of the bridge. Convinced the accident had to be "a sheer act of God," the Franciscan missionary sets out to examine in scrupulous detail those five lives, convinced he will learn why they, and no one else among the thousands who might have been crossing the bridge at that moment, were chosen by God either to be destroyed for their wickedness or to be called early to heaven for their goodness. Brother Juniper drives himself mad in the attempt.
Wilder later wrote that he meant the book to be as puzzling and distressing as the news that five of your friends have died in an automobile accident. The underlying assumption of his fable is that any one of us could have been on that bridge when it collapsed-or in those Towers or on those planes or at the Pentagon. But he closed the book with one of the most profound sentences in English literature: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
Laurie Tietjen, [sister of Port Authority police officer Kenneth Tietjen], who had been sitting with her head bent and her ginger hair falling over her moist eyes, then shared a story that expressed exactly the bridge that Wilder's words evoked. "The first time I went to Ground Zero was maybe two weeks after nine-eleven. I really didn't want to go. Somebody wanted me to go with them. It looked like war. There was still fire everywhere. And there was a very weird smell that I'll never forget as long as I live. I walked away by myself because I was just in shock. And a man came over to me. He put his arm around me. He didn't say anything, just stood there with me. About fifteen minutes. Finally he turned to me and spoke. `I didn't say anything to you, because I know there's nothing I can say to make you feel better. My daughter died in Oklahoma City.' I will never forget that man as long as I live. He made such a difference that day. He completely understood what I was going through at that time. I would love to track him down and bring back a little of that courage, a little bit of the hope he offered us that day. I just wish I knew his name."