Silent Nights, Empty Skies and a White Helmet

I had readied my children for school and they had just recently emptied the house. My wife called on her way to work. "Something's happening, are you listening to the news?" I think that was the end of our phone call. I went and turned on the news on television just as the first tower was collapsing. I could do nothing but stare in disbelief.

At that time, I had two jobs. I worked part-time at Home Depot for one. The other job was to make morning home delivery of newspapers, a job that required me to work from about 2 am to 5am every day. Later that day, I went to work at Home Depot. While we all showed up to work, very few people showed up to shop. I recall repotting a house plant for a woman who remarked, "I shouldn't be out on a day like this. But I just had to get out of the house. I just needed to see people." So she came to Home Depot and saw the few customers that day, many who walked like ghosts, barely noticing each other, deep in thought and pondering many levels of grief.

Later that night, I went to sleep for a few hours before waking up to my news paper job. At 2am, there are very few people out anyway, but this first night after the attack, was eerily quiet. A silent night. There was no other traffic on the road. No other night time delivery vehicles and nothing moving in the sky. Even though there isn't a lot of night travel in the sky over Boise, there is some. Though the sky was full of stars, it felt empty. But at the same time, the empty sky felt threatening. Any thought of something flying by was now a potential violent strike. It was not so much an emotion of fear as it was a realization of vulnerability: this is what it felt like to be on the receiving side of a war.

Over the next days, there was endless chatter. Televangelists proclaimed portentous conclusions about the meaning of it all – God's judgment on us for our God-forsaken ways; because we'd taken prayer out of school. Politicians and commentators tried to connect the networks and explain the terrorist networks. Lots of people were just trying to make sense of it. But it was senseless. And the sense to be made out of it is an ongoing project for survivors.

One attempt at sense making came from a co-worker at Home Depot. I guess it was a week after the attacks. Funerals and memorial services had begun. Standing in the break room at Home Depot together we watch the hearse deliver a casket upon which was a white firefighter's helmet. The white one was worn by a priest, a chaplain in the NYFD. There may have been other funerals that had taken place, I wasn't sure. But the first one I saw was of a heroic priest who spent his last hours on earth welcoming people into the arms of God. In the midst of dreadful fear, anxiousness and breathless confusion, sheer chaos and blinding horror, NYFD Chaplain, Father Mychal Judge ran into the fire. One of the officers of the New York Fire Department, Steven McDonald, was able to say, uncontestedly about Father Judge, "Above all, he was a living example of Jesus Christ."

I turned to my co-worker. He was not planning on a career at Home Depot. Instead, he was in training to become a firefighter. As his eyes were transfixed by the television, his demeanor was transformed. As we watched the funeral of the NYFD chaplain proceeded, I asked, "Are you still sure this is what you want to do?" He was quiet, reflective. Then humbly and gently, not self-aggrandizing, he said, "yes, this is what I want to do." As a brother in Christ, I knew he was steeling himself for a life of giving and caring, undeterred.

Lawrence Goleman in his article, "Reclaiming the Story: Narrative Leadership in Ministry," noted the choice of the type of stories we tell and the motifs they carry can move the plot to a greater purpose and can help lead to faithful responses. Goleman demonstrates that,
"After 9/11, political leaders in the U.S. chose the genres of heroic tragedy and martyrdom, which narrowed public response to fit a drama of good versus evil." There were other ways of retelling the story of the events of that momentous day. Goleman wants us to understand that the way we tell stories can lead to a limited choice of responses, adding that, "had they chosen the genre of irony or the redemptive motif of atonement, then the inconsistencies between American ideals and U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, might have shaped a more open, collaborative, and international response."

Before the day began, the motif chosen by Father Mychal Judge was the "motif of atonement" seen in his last moments. Redemption and a life-laid-down kind of love could have been the legacy of the day.

We still have the choice of which stories to take from 9/11. We can choose stories that bring out the best in ourselves by remembering those who demonstrated the best in themselves. Or, we can bring out the worst in ourselves, by being manipulated by the fear of the day and dark spirits that have their way in violence, injustice, and retribution. So hard, but so necessary, is the need to remember eerily quiet nights, empty skies, and white helmets. There is grief, and loss, and fear. But there is also an undeterred option to choose life in the face of death.