I began my seminary studies on September 4, 2001. One week later the World Trade Center Towers fell.
Since I attended classes in New Haven, CT many of my more experienced colleagues went down to serve as chaplains. Melissa taught classes at a high school at a nearby town not many people had heard of at that time—Sandy Hook, CT—and many students had relatives or family members that had been in New York that day.
I remember a general sense of gathering together and facing this together as a nation at that time. Gatherings for prayer took place frequently. Signs of support appeared in yards. And then one day, I drove behind an SUV which had a duct-tape message on the back window.
This past Wednesday I attended a “Building Bridges Iftar” at the Islamic Center near me. I had been invited by one of the interfaith council members there whom I had met when she came to our local library to teach about Islam. Many visitors arrived, and the members of the Center welcomed us warmly. As we waited for the sun to set, we heard from a scholar on Islamic Studies at nearby university. She mentioned that the current political climate and the rise of Islamophobia has been much, much worse than in the days after 9/11.
I could only think of that taped out message. Nuke ’em. Destroy them. Rid the earth of them.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, a man came up to call us to prayer. He sang beautifully in Arabic, as the English words were projected on the screen. “God is great. There is no god but God. Hurry to prayer. Hurry to success.” At that point we shared dates, watermelon and other small portions of food to break the daily fast, and then made our way to pray.
Afterward as we celebrated with the meal, I sat nearby a rabbi and his son, other local clergy, a lawyer and his wife and a muslim woman. We spoke about everyday things, our work, our families, our connections to the center, our summer vacation plans as we ate butter chicken and vegetable noodles. Around us another 125 at least had similar conversations.
Near the end of the evening, the man who had called us to prayer came by our table since he knew the rabbi well. I learned he was the son of one of the founding members, an Imam, and had been at the center more than 30 years. He’d had a long night as he works in telecommunications and service had gone down in one of the areas he oversees. “Not the easiest thing to do during Ramadan,” the rabbi replied. My new friend smiled, “Nah, I was fine,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. The rabbi and I laughed.
Soon we headed home. I left with joy in my heart for a wonderful evening with new friends and people who long for peace. And I left being haunted by that phrase, “Worse than 9/11.”
As a priest I’ll continue with the rabbi and the son of an imam to pray for and embody peace. With God’s help, we’ll find a way forward. With God’s help we’ll live into the dream we all have of living in unity side by side.