September 11, 2018, was the 17th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. It was a day of reflection for me, and memories flooded into my mind and heart. I was unwilling to write on that anniversary day, deciding rather that I would simply let the memories flow, think about them, and mull over the implications for where we are today in our broken world.
On that day in 2001 I had just arrived at Nazarene Headquarters for my first quarterly meeting as the newest member of the Board of General Superintendents. My start date had been August 1, 2001.
Only Dr. Paul Cunningham, our board chairman, was in the office when I arrived. The weight of my new responsibilities was only just beginning to settle on my utterly inadequate shoulders.
While I was finding my way around our office complex, one of the secretaries suddenly stopped me, asking if Dr. Cunningham and I had heard the news. She then said something about an incident in New York City where one of the World Trade Center Towers had been hit by an airplane. It seemed serious, she said. Dr. Cunningham and I were both troubled, but not overly alarmed, until another secretary came running into the room. A second airplane had hit the other tower. This one was an airliner! In a matter of minutes we had found and tuned a television into a national news channel, and as we watched, our hearts began to sink. A few minutes later came news that the Pentagon in Washington, DC had also been attacked, and a fourth airlines had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
It was then that the enormity of my new assignment took on a weight that become overwhelming. Dr. Cunningham turned to me and asked, “Who is in jurisdiction in New York?” The board of six was each assigned jurisdiction over a selected number of districts in the US and around the world. In case of crisis or vacancy in leadership of the districts, the jurisdictional general superintendent was responsible for overseeing the appropriate response to the situation. Suddenly my heart stopped! My breathing came only with effort. In a moment of stunning realization it dawned on me that I was in jurisdiction in both Metro New York and in Washington, DC.
For the next several months my life was immersed in conversations with district superintendents, denominational disaster response teams, trips to “ground zero,” and meetings with local leaders, first responders, family members of victims, and pastors. The Metro New York District was reeling, and several meetings were held for local church representatives to give voice to the anguish, the uncertainty, and the responsibility for responding with compassion, sensitivity, and Christian hope.
The Church’s response was heroic. From across the nation volunteers poured in to assist local recovery efforts at “ground zero,” and to assist other volunteers with food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities. In New York City, and in Washington, DC, the Church of Jesus Christ was at the front lines, pouring out help, compassion, prayer, counseling, and needed relief from the never ending process of grief, disbelief, anger, fear, and uncertainty. I will never forget it. September 11 never comes without a deep sense of grief, of gratitude, of admiration, and the realization that human evil knows no bounds. The awareness of our need for Gospel, grace, conviction, holy love, and a disciplined refusal to allow evil to win, never goes away.
As I write this I am aware that Hurricane Florence is assaulting our nation’s East Coast, and not far from that coast, my granddaughter and her husband, both just entering graduate school, are bracing for their first encounter with nature’s capacity for unimaginable destruction. At the same time, Typhoon Mangkhut is pounding the Philippines.
It reminds me that exactly four years after 9/11, I stood on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi and Louisiana, stunned at the utter and complete desolation resulting from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. I was then in jurisdiction in those two states, once again observing the heroic efforts of our Disaster Response ministry. I saw churches and homes totally devastated, and volunteers from across the continent pouring into the midst of the devastation, giving of their time, their resources, providing help, support, prayer; rebuilding homes and churches, preparing and serving thousands of meals, and asking nothing in return.
In the years following 9/11, I have traveled the globe, and have seen destruction of every kind. Human evil is capable of more disruption, destruction, and displacement than you can imagine. And natural disasters strike with distressing regularity, wreaking havoc on the most vulnerable, but not leaving anyone out of the devastation when it occurs.
We live in a world at risk, a world much more vulnerable to disruption and destruction than we are willing to acknowledge. And yet, I have seen the people of God arise to the occasion and extend a hand of compassion to those most in need more times than I can describe. I have seen firefighters whose homes were being destroyed by wildfires stay at their post seeking to save the homes and businesses of others. I have seen victims of unfathomable human cruelty arise to pour out their lives in compassion toward others who are suffering.
I remember riding in a car in a country which had endured an extended and destructive civil war. We were there to conduct the first district assemblies in years. As we drove from the airport to the capitol city a few miles away, we drove through checkpoints where barriers required us to slow to a crawl and navigate around twists and turns set up to thwart any attack that might be planned. As we entered each checkpoint a soldier would chamber a shell into a 50 caliber machine gun, and keep his hand on the weapon, watching us closely as we drove toward and then around him. No one was trusted. Fear was evident on the faces of people everywhere. The war was officially over, but the tension was extremely high.
I hardly knew how to anticipate the first district assembly. I assumed the atmosphere would be characterized by the fear and the distrust evidenced since landing at the airport. Guns, military personnel, fighter and bomber aircraft parked near to the primitive and severely damaged passenger terminal, all conveyed the sense that in a moment, the demons of warfare could be released, and chaos would reign.
But when we arrived at the site of the assembly, the people were gathering from across the district. With bright eyes and gleaming faces, laughing and embracing one another, I watched as the pastors and delegates to this first assembly in years were exhibiting a transparent joy, a genuine delight in seeing one another. They seemed intent on relishing the moment, and were in no hurry to settle down to business. But they did worship! Oh, how they worshipped! They sang with hands lifted up, tears flowing, and shouts of praise. My translator kept me up on some of the stories being told in spontaneous testimonies. There were descriptions of harrowing escapes from battles being fought in and around their homes and churches. Some buildings had been occupied by combatants from either side at one time or another, and a few family members and neighbors had been wounded or killed. But the joy was contagious!
To my utter surprise and delight, there were two candidates for ordination. Somehow the district had been able to maintain a modicum of organization, and pastors who were nearing completion of their studies when the war broke out were able to finish their work. The service of ordination was simple, but the joy and excitement were tangible. And as the assembly had progressed the people were planning to wade into the devastation and division left by the war with grace, hope, assistance to those most in need, and a plan to open churches that had been closed by the fighting.
As I have reflected on what I have seen around the world in response to natural disaster, and to human evil of unimaginable magnitude, I am struck by the capability of the people of God to be be people of hope and grace. The willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others in need, even when their own needs were seemingly insurmountable, testifies to a resilience of spirit that can only come from the Spirit of God.
Some days I could be a rank pessimist. The tension, division, and devastation seem so prevalent that one could despair of there being any hope of resolution or repair. But then I see people of God step into the furor with grace, discipline, determination, and an eternal Hope. I see nations healed, communities rebuilt, children cared for, refugees protected, and churches planted. I hear of new life in Christ, baptisms occurring, pastors being called into ministry. And I remember a service of remembrance honoring first responders in New York City. I recall a service in a church rebuilt in Mississippi where our African American pastor had become a hero to the neighbors, both white and black, because of the selfless service of the pastor, the people of that local church, and NCM volunteers from across the nation.
So, once again, 9/11 stuns me. Storms trouble me. National division and political rancor disturb my heart. But “we see Jesus,” manifest in the people of God, accomplishing what seems impossible. And I can live another year!