Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

White rose at September 11 Memorial

Eighteen years ago today, our world changed forever. Scrolling social media today, you’ll see countless “Never forget” posts and tributes to all who died as a result of such a horrific act of terror.

That event led revealed to us a much more dangerous world than we’d previously realized. It prompted permanent changes to security processes and endless efforts to keep up with the latest threats. I don’t know if anyone who remembers life prior to Sept. 11, 2001, would say they feel safer now than they did before. Even if the changes we’ve implemented have made us safer on a daily basis, the loss of innocence means we can never go back to a time when that potential threat wasn’t always in the back of our minds.

It’s very easy on a day like today to fall into a trap of bitterness and rage. The attack was truly devastating both in terms of casualties and cultural impact. I had the opportunity to travel to New York earlier this year and visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and the experience prompted extreme reverence and greater awareness of the interconnected nature of our world. It’s only natural to see the names and hear the stories of the people who lost their lives and grow angry and desire vengeance.

But that’s not the feeling I want to remember today. That’s not beneficial to our world. Hate and anger only leads to more hate and anger. Instead, as I see all the “Never forget” posts, I’m choosing hope.

Among the many artifacts at the museum in New York were pieces from the rescue teams, remnants of fire engines, and stories of the dedicated fire fighters and police officers who ran toward the burning buildings instead of away. It reminds me of a story Mr. Rogers used to share about his mother teaching him to “always look for the helpers” when he saw a tragic event on television.

“If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Further, last fall the musical Come From Away began its national tour in Seattle. The show tells the story of Gander, a small town of about 9,000 in Newfoundland on the northeast tip of Canada. When the United States airspace was closed on September 11, 38 planes were rerouted and ordered to land at Gander Airport. For nearly a full week until the airspace reopened, 7,000 visitors from around the world were stranded in, basically, the middle of nowhere.

The musical is a story of extreme kindness, as Gander and the surrounding small towns immediately dropped everything to provide shelter, clothing, food, and support to these stranded visitors who literally had nothing (they weren’t allowed access to their baggage due to security concerns in the panicked response to the attacks). It tells the story through the perspective of numerous individual people who lived it, both the natives who opened their homes and the visitors who experienced their compassion. Most impressive, the story is true. While a couple characters have tweaks from the real people who inspired them, each piece of the story really happened.

It would seem like 9/11 would be a horribly depressing premise for a musical, but it’s actually the most uplifting, powerful, hopeful theatre experience I’ve ever witnessed. And that’s because the focus isn’t on the attacks, but the response to them.

According to co-writer David Hein, “we realise the story that we’re telling isn’t about 9/11. It’s a 9/12 story, and it’s a story about how this small community reacted to a larger tragedy and a story of kindness and generosity.”

The Washington Post Magazine shared a story last week about Newfoundland’s response to the attacks headlined “The Capital of Kindness.” It’s a long read, but well worth the time. Further, if you have the opportunity to attend a performance of Come From Away, I highly recommend you do.

Tragedies strike almost every day across the world. September 11 was unique in its circumstances, but not in its devastation to the lives of so many. I believe we as humans are created in the image of God and called to love as God loves. What makes us live up to that is when we come together to assist in these tragic times. The “9/12” story Come From Away shares reveals the best possible example of human goodness in response to one of the worst examples of human evil.

That’s the piece I want to “Never forget” on this 18th anniversary of 9/11. I don’t want to never forget the rage that prompted deep-seated Islamophobia and racist attacks within our country on citizens and visitors who “don’t look like us.” That approach responds to evil with evil and assigns blame to the many for the actions of a few.

Instead, I want to never forget the hope and support that came in response, as people opened their homes to complete strangers to make sure they had the most comfortable experience possible while stranded. I want to never forget the first responders who did everything they could, including risking their own lives, to save as many as possible.

Near the end of Come From Away, as the visitors are about to return home, one of them thanks his host for his generosity. The response: “You would’ve done the same.” In a time and culture that has perhaps never been more divided and hateful, I cling to those words and pray that they will be true in response to the next tragedy, whether that’s an attack, a natural disaster, or something else.

I look for the helpers, and I know there’s hope. And I will never forget.

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