I need to make a disclaimer, if only to bring myself peace. I was probably less involved in the events of 9/11 than most anyone in the area. I had just moved to Long Island 18 months before. I didn’t know a lot of people. There is nothing that I did that was “heroic” or “spectacular.” I’m writing this from my own perspective. I’m not saying that anything I did was right or wrong. I’m not making any political statements. This is simply how I remember this event and its impact in the last ten years.
I just remember the morning was sunny. I was supposed to go to the office where I was the youth minister and do some office work, and I had stopped by my girlfriend’s house which was on the way.
“Turn on the TV! Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center!”
My first reaction was to make a joke at my future mother-in-law’s comment. If you have spent any amount of time with me, you know that I make really stupid comments at the worst possible time, thinking them to be funny. I think I am helping to lighten the mood.
When we turned on the news, it wasn’t funny. Smoke billowed out of the first of the two buildings to be hit. I think it was the North Tower. There must be something in the human condition that stops us from thinking things are as bad as they are. For some reason, I started imagining scenarios where no one was hurt.
That was impossible. There was so much smoke. And that hole. That giant, gaping hole in the side of the building.
We just stared.
I’d like to say that I started praying right away, but I didn’t. I was frozen.
I tried to think if I knew anyone in that building. I had lived in the city for about four years and spent some time as a temporary employee for places like Goldman Sachs, some other banks, and at one point spent a week working in one of the financial centers.
I couldn’t remember anyone.
“There’s another plane!”
My brain shut down.
I immediately called my brother who lived about a mile north of the towers. He said that he and his wife were okay. I told them to come out to Long Island if they needed to get away. I seem to remember him mentioning something about possibly going to a hospital to donate blood.
My brain started running through every option possible in my head so that I could be prepared for something else. My biggest fear was a nuclear strike.
“Would it travel the 35 miles from Manhattan to where I was on Long Island?”
“How long would I stay before I just left?”
“How bad is this going to get? The Empire State Building? St. Peter’s Cathedral?”
“Is this some plan to hit every single city?”
“Was I serious about wanting to get engaged to my girlfriend?”
“I shouldn’t be wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”
I went back home to change. It seemed at the time like the most logical thing to do. On the car radio, Don Imus announced that there were reports of the Pentagon being hit and unconfirmed reports of a plane down in Pennsylvania.
My cell phone rang.
It was the priest from our parish who ran youth ministry. “We have to get to the high school now. We have to just be there. In case kids need to talk.”
He was right.
I changed into jeans and a t-shirt, because somehow that made me more professional. I went up to the high school. There was no Twitter. There was no news. By and large the high school was keeping things quiet. If someone asked a question it was answered, but no one was making a general announcement. With the Long Island Rail Road, it was too easy for someone to simply live in our town and work in Manhattan as a fireman, policeman, or any one of a number of professions.
The high school students seemed to gravitate to us. They asked questions we didn’t have answers to because we weren’t watching the news. They asked us to pray for them. They just wanted to be around something safe, it seemed. We had the type of relationship with the principal at the time where our being on campus wasn’t an issue.
A gym teacher told us that one of the towers came down. I had no idea what that meant and in my mind I couldn’t comprehend it. These structures were massive pillars of steel that stretched to the sky, unstoppable temples of engineering and power. They were the anchor of the skyline. How could one of them just collapse?
Then the second one collapsed.
I didn’t see any of it. I just wanted to make sure that everyone around me was okay. I called my mom, my girlfriend, my brother in between classes.
That night there was a Mass at the parish. It was mobbed. Standing room only and perhaps 1200 packed the church. I remember being hopeful that this would wake people up to the idea that they needed to get back to church on a regular basis. I walked around, looking for someone to minister to.
I still had no idea what I was doing or what was going on. I just kept putting myself in a position where if people needed someone, if a teen needed someone, they could talk to me. I had no idea what I was going to say. I had no idea what I was going to do. I just figured I would listen, pray, and hopefully have something good to say that wasn’t completely stupid.
I would like to say that I immediately sprang to action and coordinated a prayer night for the teens and an all-out effort to relieve pain and sorrow in the best youth ministry reaction to terror ever.
That would be a lie.
The truth was at the time I was scared, lost, out of my league and in a word … terrified.
The next morning I went to the bagel shop next to the youth ministry offices. It’s New York, we are big on bagels and they really are different here. I picked up a copy of the New York Times and there were pages of pictures. Pictures of horrible destruction, death, and chaos. One picture of a man falling is burned on my brain forever. For the first time, that morning, alone in a bagel shop, I wept. I sat facing the wall, my head buried in my hands and I just wept.
Then I prayed.
Then I went back to work. We had a Life Night coming and I don’t remember what we were going to do, but it was pretty obvious that this wasn’t going to simply pass by. I don’t remember exactly what we did but I think it was a rap session (early 80’s youth ministry lingo) and Adoration. Our music minister was NYPD and he would be working for the next two weeks and we didn’t see him.
I remember thinking that we were “fortunate” because none of the kids that were regulars at our program lost any family members. That is a really foolish thought. I lived and worked in a town that had a number of FDNY that lost their lives. Streets are named after them. The funerals were at my parish. I was like a deer in the headlights. I thought if I just put the sign out that people would come in if they needed anything. That’s like the firemen and police officers and rescue workers standing outside the Towers thinking, “If anyone needs anything, they will come out and tell us.”
That wasn’t my job. That wasn’t my ministry. My job was to go in if I saw a need and with disregard for my own self-consciousness, my own intimidation. I was so scared of saying the wrong thing, of doing the wrong thing, I was frozen and didn’t act with the boldness that someone empowered with the Holy Spirit would do.
Maybe today, ten years later, knowing what I know now, I would have acted differently.
My guess is that I’m not the only one to think that.
A Fresh Coat of Paint
9/11 paints everything a different color. I don’t even know if I am fully aware of it at times, but it impacts my worldview and has for the last ten years. That isn’t good. It is an unrealistic appraisal of risk. Statistically, I know that I shouldn’t worry about the things that I worry about, but I do.
Every time I am on a bridge, I wonder if this is the exact moment that the nutjob with the truck is going to blow all of us into the river. I secretly speed a little to get to the point in the bridge where I know I am okay. Before I go on a bridge or in a tunnel, I pray that God will have mercy on my soul because I am a sinner and I need that mercy if this is IT.
A month or two after, lightning struck a house about 50 yards away from the house I was in. The noise was incredible. I imagined God had simply unveiled a small amount of power on the Earth. I again prayed that God would have mercy on my soul thinking that a nuclear bomb had finally gotten through whatever layer of security existed.
I would have to plan youth ministry events around September 11. Students had parents that wouldn’t let them out of their sight on that day. Inspiration at Six Flags in New Jersey was on the anniversary of September 11 one year and it became very difficult to get anyone to commit to bringing teens or even letting their kids go. I recall even having difficulty convincing parents to let their teens fly on a plane to the Leadership Conference Life Teen hosts every summer.
It was frustrating and I started getting angry and burying it every time it came up.
I would pretend I was fine, that my heart wasn’t terrified, even though it was.
I would pretend that I wasn’t bothered by people from the Middle East, or even Muslims. Then I would swing to the other side being completely unwilling to tolerate any opinion that suggested a Muslim could desire peace.
You would think the best of the human race that manifested itself immediately after would stick around for a while, but the truth is it died off after about four weeks. Calluses grew on my heart and soul. At one point I wouldn’t care because we could all die at any second and then the next second I would smother people about their faith because they could die at any second. I was a pendulum swinging between an apathy due to the lack of control or seeking to control everything to protect myself.
I would lose my temper when people just wouldn’t get how important things were. At least they were important to me.
Everywhere I looked someone was in pain because of this … this … THING that 9/11 had become.
Kids who lost parents.
Parents who lost kids.
Bumper stickers every day reminded me to “never forget” but that was all I wanted to do.
One friend, who spent the better part of a few months digging bodies out of Ground Zero and then going through the debris for human body parts at the facility where they would dump everything in Staten Island suffered so much physically, emotionally, and mentally, that our friendship ended for about five years.
I saw him again about five months ago and we just talked for hours. He seemed better, but his health is bad. He spent too much time breathing in the filth.
I look at my kids now, the kids who were born years later and I want 9/11 to be a history lesson in school. A museum that they visit in Manhattan when we go on a family trip. Like the Bronx Zoo or Museum of Natural History. It’s research for a project. I don’t want them to live it.
This evil, this pain, this terror never just leaves.
That evil that was unleashed at 9/11 caused families to fall apart. People to collapse psychologically, physically, emotionally. Children whose only memory of a parent is a picture or a video and who bury their pain in bottles of alcohol, drugs or sex.
That evil that was unleashed at 9/11 brought violence to the Middle East. Innocent people died all over the world because of that day. Young men and women who joined the military to escape poverty, pay for college, or as a part-time job on the weekends found themselves in countries they never thought they would be in. Some of them came home in pieces. Some of them never came home.
That evil that was unleashed at 9/11 brought a literal Hell on Earth in all parts of the Earth.
“Where was God?”
I have been asked that in the last 10 years more than any question I have received on sex, morality, Catholicism or anything else.
“Why didn’t God save those firemen? (soldiers, policemen, innocent people, etc…)”
The truth is I don’t know because I am not God. My best response is that if God wasn’t involved it would have been much worse. 50,000 people worked in those buildings but only 3000 died.
You hear stories of terror stories now and then. About the plot that was averted, about the near tragedy that was prevented. You never know if it is an urban legend, a myth or a fact.
I know that Blessed John Paul II and Jesus said to “Be not afraid.”
I guess I’m not holy enough to be not afraid. I pray for God’s mercy all the time because I have been successfully
I wish I could be like Christ. I wish I could have been like the FDNY, the NYPD or the Transit Authority officers who rushed in.
Who gave their lives.
Who sacrificed everything so that others could live.
They never let the evil get to them. They faced evil and simply were not afraid. They saw a need and ran.
I think about the youth ministers I met who were like that. They sacrificed pay, luxury, their pride, so that they could help others to truly live. They never wimped out of talking to a teen that was hurting. They were never afraid to approach someone in pain.
The ones who loved, who made the concrete choice to love, even when it hurt. Even when the sacrifice was painful and deep.
The Core Members who gave up time with their families to help on a retreat.
To plan a Life Night.
To listen to a teen who was hurting.
To go outside of their comfort zone and pray with a teen and risk rejection.
I think about the priests I know who love, serve, and are devoted to their spouse, the Church.
If there is no pain, then there is no sacrifice.
If there is no sacrifice, then how is it real love?
Yes, everything is painted a different color. It has to be. There is no way that it cannot be. Like real paint, in time the colors will fade. In the meantime, this pain is an opportunity to sacrifice, to love, and to look into the eyes of my children and pray that one day there is a youth minister who will not be afraid to show them Christ, even if their world has been painted.
There are very real things that I would do differently if I was a youth minister today. I would like to say that I knew these things and always employed them, but the truth is that I learned them by reflection and realizing that I missed an opportunity to do what I was supposed to do.
- Tragedies happen when you minister to people. If you put yourself in a position where your primary role is dealing with people, you are going to be dealing with tragedy because it happens. Sometimes it is big, like 9/11, but sometimes it is small, like a breakup. Either way, get used to the idea that you are in it for the good times and the bad times.
- Stop hiding in the office. There are times when those you minister to, and their families need to see you. You don’t have to say anything. You just have to be there. Waiting for someone to approach you and ask you to minister to them is as stupid as a fireman waiting outside a burning building waiting for someone to ask them to help. If there is a tragedy or if there is an event, your place is among the people you minister to.
- Go to wakes and funerals. I used to try to get out of these and believe me, there are multiple reasons to get out of going. It’s uncomfortable, you feel out of place, you don’t know what to say, and there is that really productive office work you could be doing. You could be doing anything else and justify it. Whatever the reason is, you are wrong. This is when teens, families, the community, needs you. This is when the “rubber meets the road.”
- You never know the “back story.” Everyone has a back story. We have all heard of the teen that was dealing with difficulty in some part of their life and acting out, hanging on the back wall, not participating. How about the family? Do you know why the family won’t come to church, why they won’t help with the program? Do you know why the young adult won’t help with Core? Why that teen stopped coming to Life Nights or Mass?
- Stop judging. Stop judging everything. The relief about this is that you can let God be God. There are things you can control and things you can change and “other people” are not on that list. In fact, besides the paint in your house, “you” are probably the only thing on that you can control. Don’t mistake this to mean “accept every possible behavior without boundaries”. Sometimes we confuse accepting boundaries with judging. Just stop judging. You don’t know why someone isn’t “prayerfully participating” in Mass or Adoration. You don’t know the state of their soul. Maybe they don’t even know. It’s a good rule and we should stick to it: be as merciful and as loving as the Church and Christ.
- Risk happens. The risk you run by trying to eliminate risk is risking any real gain. If I never crossed a bridge again, went through a tunnel, boarded a plane, I would be removing my ability to grow by cutting off new experiences. In your ministry are you not taking risks because tragedy and other events are larger in your mind than they should be?
- Say thank you a lot. You just never know. Your default on everyone should be thank you. Thank you for criticisms, thank you for help, thank you for just being here. People need to hear thank you more because at some point someone forgot to say it.
- Be honest about your weaknesses. We are human beings and any time we hold ourselves on a pedestal and pretend to be Christ, we are going to disappoint people. I am scared, inappropriate at times, and narcissistic. I’m trying to surrender it to Christ. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Luckily, there is the Blood of Christ and His Mercy.
- Life is short. Maybe shorter than you think. It would be silly to waste it on things that are not important and don’t matter. Things that will impact your life and the lives of others matter. Other people matter. Most of the time, my busy work, video games, and web browsing are simply a waste of time. It would be a shame if my life ended and I had wasted time on things that don’t matter.
- Pray now. In the end, the only solution to evil is the Blood of Christ. It is that example of love that turns the death of God into Salvation of Man. The greatest evil ever became the greatest good. If God can turn the death of God into Salvation, our tragedy melts into the greatest opportunity to love.
I don’t know God’s plan for me or those around me. So let’s just all do the best we can with what we have to love those around us. As for the rest? Give it gently to Jesus.