Grace on 9/11

by the Rev. Buddy Stallings


Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the events now forever known simply as 9/11. Anyone, who is at least thirty years old, remembers where he/she was that day. Living in San Francisco and an inveterate early riser even then, I was just waking as a friend called to say, “Have you turned on the television?” And then, while still on the phone, we watched together as the second plane flew into the South Tower. Even in the fog of that moment, I remember thinking—not with remarkable prescience but rather obviously—that a seismic shift had occurred that would change things forever. Last night I watched a couple of episodes of a Netflix series directed by the filmmaker, Brian Knappenberger, entitled, “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Cautiously, I recommend it as a cleareyed and non-partisan presentation of how that event did and continues to change us and how those changes have brought out both the best and the worst in us as a nation. If you do watch, consider watching it with someone. Gretchen did her best, but a little more than an occasional growl or snort might have helped!


My reflection this morning, though, is about something much closer to my personal experience of 9/11 and its aftermath than the existential questions raised in the documentary. On every anniversary of 9/11 since 2002, the members of Fire Station Engine8/Ladder 2/Battalion 8, located just a block from St. Bart’s in NYC, have gathered at the church. They shall again this week, remembering for the 20th year, a day on which ten of their own, indeed ten of New York City’s bravest, gave their lives as they attempted to save the lives of others at Ground Zero. I have preached at this Mass of Remembrance at least six or seven times over these years, always searching for just the right words to say, inevitably settling for the woefully inadequate, though best intended, words I could muster.


Over the years the service has grown to include those lost that day from other fire stations around the city. Hundreds of firefighters now attend most in full dress uniform with a smattering of those on duty in full fire gear, sitting near the back in case they get called to go, as they regularly do. Along the marble wall separating the nave from the chancel and sanctuary, framed photographs of those who died are displayed, ten at first now more as other houses have joined in. Families of this cadre of brave men and women attend each year—some too young in the beginning to know what was happening but now realizing how that day has shaped their entire lives, children growing up with only a legacy and a photograph for a dad or mom, who perished that day. Many increasingly aged spouses and parents continue to show up as well, life in most instances in one way or another having gone on; but absolutely no one gets to say on this day to this group that perhaps they should “move on,” that perhaps it is not healthy to continue an annual remembrance that is so desperately sad. I’ve wondered myself about that, of course, but I have never voiced it for it is not a question for me to ask, let alone to answer. My guess is that it will continue until it needs to stop.


Likely most of the firefighters, who attend these services at a big, old Episcopal church in midtown Manhattan, a cultural institution in the city, are Roman Catholics. I knew these folks from my days on Staten Island, the first parish I served after 9/11, coming to be with them while the pile downtown was still smoking, where day after day people wrangled with boulders and sifted through deep, powdery dust for signs of lost victims—cherished colleagues and total strangers. I had the honor of being the pastor of a few of them, who had somehow ended up being Episcopalians. I will never get over (or stop appreciating) how these men and women, heroes each, lined up to receive communion every year in what they fully understood to be an Episcopal church. I knew that had these same individuals been attending a funeral or wedding on Staten Island in an Episcopal church, where the Eucharist was part of the service, not even one would have left his/her seat. I knew because I had tried to coax them myself! But on this day, there were no Episcopalians or Catholics or any other category for that matter, just people, who had endured something unendurable, brought together once again to remember the pain but also to witness the presence of hope by speaking the words of faith, packaged in this case as Episcopal but clearly speaking beyond the boundaries of any single tribe. It touched me every time, and the remembrance of it shall forever.


May the souls of all the departed rest in peace, and may the lives shattered by losses twenty years ago continue to heal and know the love and grace that come only from God.


21 thoughts on “Grace on 9/11”

  1. What a profound and thoughtful reflection. As is the case so often, you find the words that people wish they could express. Thank you for your ministry on behalf of all of us to these NYC firefighters.

  2. Very amazing statements of a horrible day in New York city. Miss you in person, but cannot wait to see you again soon!!!

    1. Sally, my advice is not to push it. It is a pretty sad tale without a very good ending. On the other hand, I think it is fair. Best blessings either way! B

  3. We lost a former neighbor and friend in the Pentagon that day as well as all the other American brothers and sisters. Lost a former friend and Calvary church friend in Vietnam. Freedom comes at a high cost. I hope our country can stay focused on the high price of freedom.

    1. Jim, thanks for writing. It is a complicated story, but my appreciation for those who have given so much is not complicated: it is direct and filled with admiration. Blessings. B

    2. Jim, I am sorry for your losses in these tragic historic events but I am glad to see your name coming across in Calvary’s Blog.


  4. Thank you for sharing the experience of “ the walls” that came down in the sanctuary where clearly God portrayed no separation.

    1. Thanks much for writing, Zada. Walls coming down—that is the metaphor that works for so much of what is truest and best about our faith. All best.

    1. I will never forget a one of them. Such meaningful times. All best to you guys! Look forward to being with you in October. B

  5. You are fabulous, Buddy Stallings!!! What a gift you were/are to the New Yorkers. It warmed my heart that they,New Yorkers, started accepting communion. I know you played a part in their decision.
    This phrase spoke volumes to my heart when my brain cannot relay the message adequately in words:
    “always searching for just the right words to say, inevitably settling for the woefully inadequate, though best intended, words I could muster.”

    Soon, the tackle hug!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Ah, Mary. Thanks. Yes, there were positive things to come of it. Many people who walked uptown that day covered in dust found their way into the quiet stillness of St. Bart’s. Some of them have become deeply involved since. On we go. Blessings always! B

      Ready for the tackle

  6. How blessed those people were to have you in their midst and you to have them. I was glued to the TV yesterday for the memorial services and then watched Turning Point. Pride of our country and its people overwhelmed me. Where are those heroes today? They are out there. Bless them all.
    Thank you for a positive story in the horror of how we all felt.

    1. Yes, Ginny. THey are out there. Many of them are working in COVID units around the country. We have to continue to believe and go forward! Blessings always.

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