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Myrna Bethke

Ten years later…

These are the moments I miss my little brother.  I am about to delete the video driver software from my computer so that a new video card can be installed.  I’m pretty sure I can follow the instructions and all will be well.  But, what if?  After all, I’m deleting the software that allows me to see what’s going on with the computer.  Up until September 11, 2001, this would be a task done with my brother on the other end of the phone.  Then there would be a level of confidence that a “what if” wouldn’t be a major problem.  If something went wrong my brother would tell me what buttons to push and all would be well.  After all, he once re-formatted my entire computer over the phone in a matter of minutes.  He just kept telling me what keys to press, even before the screens were coming up.  I asked him what if I push the wrong key, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll just re-do the process and it will get fixed.”  Next I asked him to tell me what I was doing because it was a bit nerve wracking to have all these screens and numbers flashing by so quickly.  His reply was, “You asked me to fix the computer and I’m doing that, if you want to know how to fix the computer go to school and learn.”  So…now, ten years later, I’m about to go into the computer controls and hit the uninstall key.  It will ask me “Are you sure you want to uninstall the following program?”  With a deep breath, I will say yes.  These are the moments I miss my little brother…

Ten years ago, along with all of you I watched as the first reports of a plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center came on the news.  And then another plane, and another and another crashed…into the South Tower, into the Pentagon, into a field in Shanksville, PA.  In the chaos and disbelief of what was being shown on my computer screen it took me a while to remember that my youngest brother had recently transferred to the Marsh and McLennan offices in the World Trade Center.  I started making phone calls to see if anyone had heard from him.  None of my family had…and to this day the confirmation of his death is silence.

That Tuesday was a mix of numbness and energy.  My two elementary aged children were at school.  I remember picking them up and asking if they had heard what had happened, telling them that this very public event was also deeply affecting us because their Uncle Billy was working at the World Trade Center and had probably died.  As a United Methodist Pastor there was also a congregation to take care of, people in our community were still missing, some already confirmed dead, others were making the arduous trek out of the city…a journey that was taking five and six hours.  We held a worship service of tears and grief, of rage and pain, of disbelief and faith.  We told stories, prayed, and sang together.  All through the week we gathered as God’s people.  One of the hymns we sang was from An African Prayer Book:  Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.  Victory is ours, through God who loves us.

From the very beginning it was my prayer and hope that our response to the attacks on 9/11 would not be one of violence and retribution.  While I didn’t know exactly what shape our response should take, I knew that a return of violence would only lead to an upward spiral of more violence.  In the Christian community, the first Sunday of October is World Wide Communion Sunday, a day when Christians throughout the world celebrate the sacrament of communion with an emphasis on our unity through the body of Christ.  In 2001, the date of this event was October 7th.  October 7th is also my brother’s birthday.  I came home from worship that day to the news that we had just started bombing Afghanistan.  I know that some would find it that fitting—that on a day celebrating Christian unity and my brother’s birthday, it was right to “get back” at those who had harbored the terrorists of 9/11.  I felt nothing but a profound sadness that we had chosen to attack, and so soon.  Was there anyone out there that would share that voice?

My answer came on February 14, 2002 when I read about the formation of a group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.  I signed up as a member as soon as I finished reading the article.  Here I found people that I didn’t have to explain myself to…they not only knew the grief of losing someone on 9/11; they also shared my conviction that returning violence for violence was not the answer.  My involvement in Peaceful Tomorrows led to an invitation to be part of an interfaith peace delegation to Afghanistan organized by Global Exchange.  While I felt strongly about going on this trip, at the same time I needed to ask my parents…after all it was a risky trip and they had just lost their youngest child.  I called my parents and told my father about the invitation.  The first thing he asked was how can we help you get there.  After that I figured any other criticism of my going wasn’t going to sway my decision.

In June of 2002 I traveled to Afghanistan to see first hand this country that had been so devastated by years of fighting.  Our delegation got to see how and why the Taliban had risen to power, why Osama bin Laden found a base from which to perpetuate his evils.  We walked in the Kabul stadium where so many executions had taken place…you could almost hear the cries of those killed and smell their blood.  Our guest house was on the same street that bin Laden filmed his video gloating about how the 9/11 attacks had been more successful than he dreamed they would be…and so, daily we walked past that place.  Yet, even in the midst of all the destruction and devastation we found signs of hope as schools were being reorganized, girls were going back to school, and rebuilding was going on everywhere.  And we found a deep hospitality offered to us no matter where we went.  The examples of Afghan hospitality live with me and influence me to this day.

Because of my role as a United Methodist Pastor I feel it is important to look for a moment at how fear and religion have become intertwined since 9/11.  I have always found my Christian faith strengthened by my interfaith relationships.  From my Jewish friends I learn the importance of ritual, and story telling.  When I was asked if I celebrated the death of bin Laden, I could say no, no death is to be celebrated.  And I turned to a Jewish midrash about the drowning of the Egyptian army.  It is said that as the Israelites and angels watched the Egyptian army drowning they start to sing in celebration.  God stopped them and said how can you celebrate, my people are drowning.  My faith is enriched by my Muslim friends and the ordering of their day in prayer times, their hospitality, and by the downright practicality of their faith practices.  It is profoundly saddening to witness the anti-Islam backlash these past ten years.

This was most evident last year with the controversy over the Park 51 project which somehow became described as the Mosque at Ground Zero.  Never mind the fact that it is two blocks away and the proposed area for the project is one full of strip clubs and betting joints…far from being sacred space.  Islam did not commit the crime and tragedy of 9/11.  Nineteen men flew the planes on that day, 19 men who no more represent Islam than Christian pastors such as Terry Jones, who burn Korans represent Christianity.

The butterfly effect in chaos theory says that the smallest incident anywhere can have a major impact everywhere, or as the saying goes:  The brush of a butterfly’s wing changes the world.  For me, that means even one voice working for peace can have an impact in the world…as more voices join together the impact grows and grows.  My faith tradition teaches me that God’s love is bigger than any evil the world can dish out…that we are called to a life that is led by that reality.  We chose what will define us—the love of God or the actions of terror.  Will our actions be defined by what the love of God will have us do, or will we allow fear to govern our days.

As complicated, as messy, as difficult as working towards peace and justice for all people here is the reason I am committed to continuing even when there is so much that seems to work against it:  The tragedy of 9/11 really hit home for me a few weeks later.  I called my parents to see how things were going.  My father answered the phone and said he would call me back.  The New Jersey State Police had just arrived to take a DNA sample from him in hopes of someday identifying my brother’s remains.  I hung up thinking that no parent should have to be doing this…and knowing that scores of others were going through the same process.  That moment joined with another experience in Afghanistan.  We met a beautiful eight year old girl who had lost most of her family when her home was hit by a stray bomb.  Amina stood in our guest house one evening to tell her story.  We did not need our translators to tell us what she was doing towards the end of her talk.  Amina was saying the names of her family and the word dead after each one.  The list went for what seemed a very long time.  We work for peace because of my father, because of Amina, because of people all through the world who are having to go through such horrors.  We work for peace so that parents don’t have to give DNA samples in hopes of one day identifying the remains of their children and so little girls can be out playing instead of standing before people and giving the names of their families because they are the only ones left to speak for them.

Ten years later…I push the yes button on my computer…lo and behold, my new video card is installed!

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