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.