This past Sunday was beautiful, bright and warm, not unlike the sky blue day when those two airliners hit the World Trade Center in 2001, just a mile or so from where I live. That day, a Tuesday, was a bit hotter, a bit more humid, yet just as sunny and promising.
But this Sunday morning’s silence was broken by the sound of a bell and a small, organized crowd of friendly people chatting quietly among themselves, walking south down Seventh Avenue, the street that runs beneath my apartment windows, escorted by police and fire vehicles. With a prompt from the news on my radio, I remembered that this was an event that now takes place every year on the Sunday before the anniversary of 9/11.
The people walk in memory of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest who died at the World Trade Center, the attack’s first officially recorded death, designated Victim 0001. Chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, Father Judge had rushed to the disaster scene, delivered last rites to the dying, then gone inside the lobby of the north tower, praying for all those at Ground Zero but especially for his friends, the firefighters.
“Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!” he was heard to exclaim. And then the south tower collapsed. Debris came crashing through the north lobby. Father was struck and fell, dead – “blunt force trauma to the head,” the coroner’s report read.
It would be foolish to pretend to know what Father Judge would make of the controversy over Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center downtown a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, but there may be a clue in the words of the homily he delivered just the day before 9/11. “No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God is calling you to do,” he said. “But God needs you, He needs me, He needs all of us.”
All of us. Not just Christians or Jews, but Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, the right, the left, everyone. Father Judge himself was both gay and a recovering alcoholic, struggles that gave him particular insight into the plight of all too many misunderstood souls working to make their capacity for love, compassion and courage known and accepted as equal to anyone else’s.
So all of us have a role to play and none of them should involve inflaming hatred and prejudice among us, none of them should involve violating the rights of others or considering oneself superior to another or burning the scripture of those the ignorant and opportunistic want us to believe are evil or unholy.
Writing in Wednesday’s New York Times, Feisal Abdul Rauf, chair of the effort to build Cordoba House and imam of the Farah mosque already in lower Manhattan, said, “These efforts by radicals at distortion endanger our national security and the personal security of Americans worldwide. This is why Americans must not back away from completion of this project. If we do, we cede the discourse and, essentially, our future to radicals on both sides. The paradigm of a clash between the West and the Muslim world will continue, as it has in recent decades at terrible cost. It is a paradigm we must shift.”
Just returned from two months in the Middle East on behalf of the State Department, seeking conciliation between Muslims and other religions, Rauf continued, “Let us commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 by pausing to reflect and meditate and tone down the vitriol and rhetoric that serves only to strengthen the radicals and weaken our friends’ belief in our values.”
Reflect and meditate in silence, please. Many have urged that September 11 this year not be a time of demonstrations for or against Cordoba House or any other issue; rather, let it be a quiet day of commemoration and mourning.
The last time I attended the September 11 ceremonies at Ground Zero, on the fifth anniversary in 2006, as the names of the dead were read, solemn tranquility was disrupted and disrespected by those who tried to use the occasion to draw attention to themselves, crassly intruding with their conspiracy theories and raucous agendas.
And quiet, please, not only because it is a mark of respect for the deceased and their friends and families, but also because it is the sound of silence that many New Yorkers find so evocative of those days just after the attacks. Our streets closed to regular traffic, patrolled by police and the National Guard, we wandered in mute disbelief at what had happened, at the enormity of our loss. Even the emergency vehicles that raced along the empty streets did so without their sirens. We murmured softly amongst ourselves, looking for answers as many of our fellow citizens still searched for news of their missing loved ones.
Let our loss be what we remember on Saturday. That, and the words of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the order of friars to which Father Mychal Judge devoted himself: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”
MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.