Pick any local channel this Sunday and you’ll hear accounts of nationwide and local “celebrations” for 9/11. I struggle with the word “celebration.” I want to ask the anchor, “What are we celebrating?” (I prefer “remembrance.”) I was unable to celebrate in 2001. I was in Oldham, England a city then deeply divided along racial and religious boundaries. The Oldham Riots erupted the summer before Summer and I moved to the UK. We saw our future hometown burning like Watts as disenfranchised young Muslim men defending themselves against the British Nationalist Party (BNP) The BNP is an English version of…insert any White Supremacist Group. Summer and I were the only American family in town. Oldham was a jigsaw of uncomfortably conjoined boroughs alternating between “Anglo-no-go” and “Asian-no-go” areas. The worst ethnically motivated riots in the UK since 1985 continued to throw-off sparks, civil unrest made for dry powder and then the unthinkable happens; the towers fall.
I remember, the moment vividly. I was driving home from visiting Mrs. Winterbottom-a beloved parishioner-when BBC Radio 1 began cutting in and out like I was losing their signal. I recall thinking how odd it was that there was no white noise. The silence was broken by a stuttering reporter struggling for words to describe the horrors unfolding in New York. I entered a surreal dreamlike state where the lines of reality and fiction became most assuredly blurred. Only in that liminal space could I even begin to fathom what was going on back in the States. I drove to the manse with no recollection of how I made it from Mrs. Winterbottom’s flat to my front door. I fumbled with my house keys. I was shaking. I thought, “I’ll call Mama.” The phone lines were overwhelmed, so there would be no calls to my Mom or anyone else’s for that matter. I made for the living room thinking I would turn on the TV and this would all be some sick joke. I turned on the news just in time to see the second tower be struck. Then it was replay after horrific replay of airplanes hitting towers until even the locals were said to be calling the BBC to show some respect and take the damned images off the air. Then it hit me; I had forgotten about Summer. Where was she? Was she safe? I didn’t have a cell phone. And the phone lines were still overwhelmed. The phone rang and I fumbled the receiver like I did my keys as my hands were still shaking, Summer was on the other end crying and wanting to go home. She couldn’t tell me where exactly she was or how to get to her. Summer was trying to get home her National Health Post in nearby Bury, but stunned motorists made for gridlock. She later described scenes of drivers and pedestrians alike stunned into a holding pattern unable to do anything but stand still. My wife summoned the will to take bus after bus to get home. What an ironic word, home. We were an ocean away from home. She got home. We wept. We did not celebrate then. We do not celebrate now.
That first night, the images on the BBC was more than we could bear to watch. The sad irony, the other local stations were airing reruns of old war movies. Isn’t it funny how real war makes Hollywood fiction look trifling and offensive? A day passed, the phones stayed busy, the news replayed the senseless violence and horror of that day, and we sat waiting for what would happen next. Would our churches, the only people who knew us in the entire country, would members call or visit? Who was going to protect us? We were outsiders. Would we become victims of further violence? After all, we were Americans.
Early on the morning of Sept. 12, there was a knock at our door and the people who were knocking were most unexpected. At our door were the first people to stop by and make sure we were ok. Our visitors were two men, one with a snowy white head of hair and an equally full white beard and the other looked similar only younger with coal black hair and beard. A Muslim father and son who lived a few doors down. I was seized by fear and anger. I assume the two men had seen us move into the neighborhood, they embraced me as if I were the prodigal son. They cried. I cried. We held onto one another until we all realized how absurd the sight of three grown men hugging and crying must look. We even laughed at the wonderfully weird and yet powerful moment that our embrace made for. We hugged some more. We cried some more. We only spoke when we parted. I said to them, “The Lord be with you.” My words were met with Alaykum As-Salaam, an Arabic equivalent to “and also with you.”
And just like my trip from Mrs. Winterbottom’s, I again found myself somehow in my living room unaware of having ever closed the front door. Summer had been asking who it was for what may very well have been some time. “Who was it?” she asked. I said, “Our neighbors.”
Mark 12: 31 “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”