Faith and Religion

Faith: Our Response to 9/11: a Legacy of Questions


By Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Parish,

Stockton, CA. September 10th, 2011- Like all of you, I remember distinctly where I was and what I was doing on that Tuesday morning when the world changed forever.

Something prompted me to do what I never did: turn on the television.

The rest of that day passed like a dream. I can hardly remember anything.

Suddenly, the Modesto Bee’s endless front-page repetition of the Chandra Levy mystery and Congressman Gary Condit’s suspected connection went silent. Suddenly, it was as if the Dot-Com crash had never taken place.

We bought a huge American flag and hung it in the entry-way of St. Jude Church in Ceres, where I had recently arrived as an associate. Everybody seemed on board with patriotic sentiment, even the vast majority of our parishioners, who happened to be from south of the border. Gary Condit and his family, now my parishioners and new-found friends, watched with mixed emotions as the convoy of parasitical news-vehicles slinked away.

I tried to explain to the Quinceañera girl, yesterday, what it was like to live in those days. She turns fifteen today – meaning she turned five on 9/11.

How could she grasp the sense of solidarity we felt as flags flew every-where, while our internal divisions seemed to melt way – if only for a brief moment – as the unthinkable acts of terror galvanized a nation nearly lost?

We’d already survived Y2k, entering the New Millennium nearly intact.

Now, with the world behind us, we could resurrect to new heights of glory.

But that Sunday, September 16th, Surjit Singh Samra went missing. A frail 69 year-old Sikh who walked Ceres’ irrigation canal daily, this lone man’s cruel fate would drown our illusions of togetherness and mutual solidarity.

Tuesday morning, one week after 9/11, his body was found under a bridge.

Still fully clothed, wallet in his pocket, he was missing glasses and turban.

From the National Cathedral, Billy Graham announced to President Bush, to the nation, and to the world that America needed a revival. Yes, we did.

We launched two wars and the Patriot Act. Now, ten years later, these campaigns’ bitter legacies hang over us like clouds that just won’t go away.

I’ve made it a point to pray at Manhattan’s Ground Zero when I lay-over in New York City, but I no longer need to travel so far to mourn the losses.

I’ve been to the Pentagon twice – as my brother-in-law works for the State Department and had watched the monolith burning from his office window.

But I don’t have to visit D.C. to lament the fires that scorched our security.

I’m flying to Pennsylvania for a wedding in November, but won’t have to visit Shanksville to sense the horror of innocent people being buried alive.

I believe that we simply haven’t lived out, as a nation, that inspired resolution to become once again a place of mutual tolerance and compassion, to determine again to be “one nation under God”, to recommit ourselves in the Declaration’s challenge to honor every person’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For all their brutality and fanatic distortion of every value we hold dear, the attacks of 9/11 challenged us to realize all that being American truly ought to mean, and to live that with conviction.

The question is, have we met that challenge and prevailed? Or have we, in our legitimate campaigns to hold terror at bay at home and abroad, lost far greater battles? I’m afraid that we’re defeating ourselves in the process.

Looking into the eyes of a new-born baby last night, I could only ask her forgiveness if we’ve failed to leave her a better world. Beside her, a little girl offered me her stuffed monkey. I took that as her commentary on where we’ve gone since 9/11 — backwards. But then, just as I reached out to grab that monkey, the kid snatched it back. She doesn’t trust adults.

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