What We Gained From 9/11

September 11, 2014

Today the United States remembers 9/11, the day the Twin Towers that used to pierce the sky on the New York skyline crumbled into rubble.

Naomi Yakawich wrote a blog yesterday reflecting on the day. I was moved by this particular paragraph:

“Before we remember what we lost on September 11th, 2001, remember first what we gained, as Americans and as citizens of our global community.  That day, people became heroes and leaders.  When we move forward, we heal knowing it is not the hate that invigorates our determination for a better future for our children.  Rather, it is our love for what makes us human, our capacity to forgive, and a knowledge that we can, that we will, set a new standard for morality even in our darkest moments.”

I lived in one of the outer boroughs of New York shortly after the Towers fell, and I can attest to the heroism that came out full color. Men and women of New York’s finest and bravest didn’t hesitate to rush into the rubble to save even one more life. Ordinary citizens stepped up to sacrifice for each other. Even in loss there was much gained.

There is another hero of 9/11 that I remember. She passed away this year, but until the end, she was a powerful character who I remember fondly as “Grandma.” On 9/11 she was not in Manhattan; she was in her quiet neighborhood in Queens. After the towers fell, the first thing this 85 year-old woman did was put on her shawl and shoes and walk over to the nearest mosque a few blocks from her home. She boldly knocked on the front door.

Unlike other incidents that occurred in the city, she paid a visit to the mosque to offer a hand of friendship. She told them that although the terrible incident was laid along religious lines, she knew that Islam was peaceful, and their worshipers should not feel scared.

9/11 Memorial in New York City.

The footprints of the Twin Towers are an enduring reminder of the heroism of those who sacrificed, and the need for interreligious leadership.

This brave grandmother offered her protection. She told them if they ever felt unsafe that she would be the first to stand by them and defend their freedom to worship God as their conscience dictated. She eventually became close friends with a woman there.

Grandma responded to an act of hatred with faith in humanity’s nobility and with love. What blossomed out of that was a life-long interreligious friendship.

Just like what happened in Grandma’s small neighborhood, 9/11 ushered in a new period in New York City, and maybe the United States, where religious engagement and understanding became imperative.

Interfaith action and cooperation opened up a new arena of possibilities, bringing values back into public discourse and creating holistic approaches to social problems that were inclusive of people’s spiritual practices.

But, it has been 13 years, and the challenges of extremism still stand in many regions of the world, including the United States. And the voice of leaders of faith seems sometimes crowded out by partisan debates.

It’s a good day to remember what we gained from that day – a realization that we need the voice, perspective, and moral authority of religious leaders in public discourse. But that the key is that they work together across their religious differences, and upon common values.

Forums like the upcoming Global Peace Leadership Conference in Arlington are critical for religious leaders to come together and hash out the fundamental principles that bind this nation, and humanity for the matter together.

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