2016-07-29
This article was originally published in September, 2003.

In those first days after, as we mourned those taken at the start of a routine workday, we also glimpsed the sacredness and connection hidden in our everday lives. It was largely this value that we honored in treasuring each of the 2,902 victims as individuals, and many of us vowed we'd always think about that day and that lesson. How have we done? Two years later, we asked people close to the 9/11 events, those who watch the country's spiritual life, and our own members how the attacks changed their lives, and to assess how well they and the nation are keeping to the spiritual promise of that time.


'You have to be active, not sitting and hoping everything's going to be okay.'
Lorie Van Auken, widow of Kenneth Van Auken, 47, who died in the World Trade Center

September 11 changed the way I look at the world completely. Before 9/11, I was a wife and mother. I had confidence and faith that politicians that we put into office were doing their job and didn't need to be watched 24/7. I assumed that just like I was doing my job raising my children and taking care of my house and going to the PTA, that they were doing their job too. And it turns out that they weren't.

I didn't know anything about the government. I didn't know the difference between the House and the Senate. And now I've learned a lot. I don't go on faith anymore. I realize you have to be active, not sitting and hoping everything's going to be okay. I don't look at the sky and say, "Oh, I hope this will work out." I get in my car and make it work out.

I've become an activist. I went to Washington to demand an independent commission to look into [the failures of government agencies] from the White House on down. It was like grabbing onto a high-voltage cable, the anger that you feel. The difference is your reaction--do you kill innocent women and children, or do you pound on the door of your government?

The word "closure" for me is kind of a farce. I don't think we'll find closure. I don't think you ever move on--you move through a process. It seems completely unreal. The last message my husband left me on my machine was, "I love you very much." Just now I was sitting here and thinking, I can't believe my husband is dead. Where is he? I forgot for a minute. My daughter Sarah won't get on a plane. She calls them "scare planes" and says that we all have an "11" on our foreheads from furrowing our brows because of 9/11.

'"Normal" is a mirage. It's death that is real and certain.'
Diane L. Knippers, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy

I have painful memories of 9/11 and its aftermath, but I also recall good things. There was a sense of national unity I relished. We broke through some of our divisions--black or white, Republican or Democrat, even Christian or Muslim or Jew. We grieved together. I savored the common purpose, respect, and consideration for strangers. It's largely gone, and I miss it.

Then there was the fear. Since 9/11, those of us in the Washington area have endured the anthrax scare, Code Orange alerts, and the sniper attacks. One weekend, I suddenly balked at going downtown to a rally. I had simply gotten very tired of being brave.

Then, I was diagnosed with cancer, and all those "out there," unarticulated fears became clearer. I'm going to die, I realized. It may come decades from now, or it could come soon. After my diagnosis, I read Richard John Neuhaus's little book, "As I Lay Dying," written as he faced cancer. It was a relief to read his bracing comment that, "all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent." My friends and family want to talk about a cure or a miraculous healing. But I need to face my death as well. I want to be ready for this next, inevitable step.

That's precisely what we faced on 9/11. On 9/11, we Americans saw death. Most of us aren't remotely ready to die; we prefer euphemisms and denial. The death of thousands haunted us. That's what we still don't want to face.

So we have worked very hard to get back to "normal." We squabble among ourselves about homeland security and international conflicts. We flock to the malls, doing our part to restore the economy. We let our basement supply of water and batteries get low. Normal is feeling safe.

The truth is, such a "normal" is a mirage. It's death that is real and certain. Most us of experienced the fear on 9/11, but avoided naming its root cause. I didn't either, until the threat came very close, into my own body.

"So Death ere long disrobes us all," the hymn "Amazing Grace" tells us. Reminders of our mortality are both horror and gift. On 9/11, we saw the horror, but ignored the gift. And so we are essentially unchanged.

'Maybe the most amazing story is that church attendance didn't decline after Sept. 11'
Dr. Will Willimon, Dean of Duke Chapel, Duke University

A Gallup poll noted that there was a 20 percent increase in church attendance after 9/11 and 3 months later, it was back down. There was also a huge amount of church activity during World War Two and afterward, when people were getting back to normal. The churches in England, too, were filled during the war. But we should have learned from those historical precedents that it doesn't continue after people get through the basic crisis.

I wonder whether people came seeking consolation, but found that many times the consolation that Jesus gives is not the consolation we thought we needed. Someone told me at that time, "I just didn't find what I was looking for." Maybe what Americans were looking for, Christianity doesn't always deliver.

C.S. Lewis said that the Christian faith is a thing of marvelous comfort, but it usually doesn't begin in comfort. It often begins in the pain of asking hard questions and telling the truth. So maybe the most amazing story is that church attendance didn't decline after 9/11.

We had prayer here at noon every day after 9/11, with different campus ministers leading the prayer. We'd have 20 or 30 people each day. Then on Friday, the president called a national day of prayer, and we walked out to see about 500 people gathered. We had no microphone, no music. The leader that day was an evangelical Christian. He said, "Let us pray," and then led the people in a 15-minute prayer of confession. He confessed our promiscuity, our adultery, our militarism, our pride, our sin. Man, was the congregation mad. But that's what our faith asks from us, and it's an amazing moral achievement.

'I do not need to go back to that day to be reminded'
Beliefnet member jeanette 1

Looking back takes me somewhere I don't want, or more importantly, need to be. My eyes are on the future and I'm attempting to live in the present.

Let me share an experience I had. In Australia, spring starts in September. A few days after 9/11, I sat on the beach watching a young father dangle the legs of his toddler in waves and I watched families play in the sand, and older couples walking along the edge of the waves. I felt an enormous sadness, but I also felt that those who died would not have wanted people to forsake the joys of love, of relationships, of nature.

Denying ourselves of joy and peace do nothing to honour those. I do not need to go back to that day to be reminded. I simply need to live my life and cherish all the gifts in it.

'We have reached, not a bump in the road, but a real turning point'
Imam 'Abdur-Rahim Muhammad, assistant imam of the Islamic Center in Syracuse, N.Y.

Healing, like life, is not just an event, but a process marked by events. For those who would quickly minimize these events for reasons that disregard the impact on all of us--not just the families and survivors whose wounds are still healing, whose tragedy deserves great respect--the call to "get over it" rings very hollow.

Rather than "move on" numbly, impervious to pain, we might strive instead to move forward humbly--ready to improve and correct our lives, so that we as a nation of people can grow, the way human beings are supposed to.

Why humble? Why not proud? Because all of our religions say the same about the arrogant and the smug--and because we have reached, not a bump in the road, but a real turning point in the history of America. Where, as Dr. King asked, do we go from here? May we each, and all, be blessed to make the best effort we can. My offer is one of hope.

'It's impossible to go on believing in God in the same way'
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Vice President, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

People often ask me, When will it get back to being normal? I respond that it will get to normal, but it won't get back to normal. When tragedy strikes, life shouldn't be the same. It's impossible to go on believing in God in the same way. For some, faith will be intensified and for some it will be shattered. Tragedy really changes you. For me, a spiritual outlook means not being afraid of those changes.

Spiritual practice can help make us feel stable when things are changing. We often try to create stability by fighting change. Of course, change is just another word for growth, and what spirituality is all about is growth. The trick is to find those practices and that wisdom that let you feel stable, even as everything around you and you yourself is changing and growing.

'Most of us have forgotten the vows we made'
Diane Keough, award-winning journalist living in Northeast Ohio

What happened in the days, weeks and months following 9/11 was like an anthill that's been stepped on. Initially, the ants rush around in wild confusion, trying to figure out what's hit them. But sooner or later, the activity starts up again. The ants go about their business and the damage that was done is repaired and forgotten.

At a party this past weekend, all conversation stopped and everyone looked up when a commercial plane passed over us, flying unusually low. The disruption was only momentary. The plane, like the national alerts that change from yellow to orange and back again, was treated as a minor annoyance and then promptly forgotten. The discussions about the Browns game picked up right where they left off.

Most of us have forgotten the vows we made on September 12th--our vows to change and begin leading lives of significance. Our vows to make this world a better place. We've forgotten our vows of unity. There's plenty of room to sit in churches, synagogues and mosques again. Politicians are back to bickering, name calling, and posturing. Initially, the pain of 9/11 served as an alert to most of us. How do we heal from the pain, but never forget the promises we made immediately thereafter?

I don't know. But tomorrow I'll keep the television and radio on, and listen, remembering how I cut back on my work hours immediately following; how I didn't mind the hassle of the beefed up security; how I held my boys tighter and wouldn't let my husband leave without telling him I loved him. I'm willing to read the newspaper, remembering how I smiled at strangers and let people merge into traffic, no matter how late I was running.