Most people in our generation will always remember where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. It is actually September 12 that sticks in my mind as a pivotal day in my life and faith.
On 9/11, like thousands of others, I sat glued to the television, amazed and horrified at the events unfolding on my screen. A group of us huddled into the living room of a small off-campus apartment to watch updates and call loved ones. We wept tears of relief when one friend finally was able to contact her father who had been unreachable all day, on a plane to New York. We ventured out to give blood at the Red Cross, to feel like we could actually do something to help.
September 12 was the day after what was undoubtedly one of the worst days in American history. But the tragedy that day was the fear and pain in the eyes of another group of friends.
It felt wrong to sit in class and pretend that life was just the same as the day before. We sat in stunned silence for there were no words that would do justice to what we were feeling.
That day most people talked about the fear they felt at the thought of further attacks, the shock that terrorism had reached America’s shores, or the anger at those that took so many lives.
But many people in my class spoke about a different kind of fear and horror.
It was an Arabic class in which I sat, unable to find the words as I listened to my Middle Eastern friends. Tears flowed as they talked about the fear they felt walking around campus – fear of judgment and retaliation. The look of horror in their eyes spoke of disbelief that men could do something so terrible in the name of their faith.
They had already been met with hateful stares. Accusation and fear collided as some even resorted to hurling words of anger and blame at my Muslim classmates.
The girls who wore headscarves were especially vulnerable and they cried when they admitted they had thought about removing them to avoid the harsh reactions they had been receiving.
My heart was broken for all those hurting across the country as the smoke began to clear, for those who had lost loved ones and whose lives would never be the same.
But I also realized there were other victims of 9/11 that I hadn’t even considered until that moment. Muslims in American and around the world came to be perceived as the enemy that day and life would never be the same for them either.
Later that evening, I gathered with other students at a makeshift memorial. The famous black iron arch at the entry to the old campus had stood witness for 150 years of protests, celebrations, and times of grief. Students wept and embraced in the flickering lights of candles placed there.
I felt so many conflicting emotions but as I knelt at the book where people were recording thoughts and prayers, I thought of my class earlier in the day. My thoughts became crystal clear. All I could feel was an overwhelming love.
Very few times in my life have I felt like God has spoken directly to me. But in that moment I felt Him saying to me, “love those people that others are, even now, growing to hate.”
I knew this moment in our history would unite some people and place a stark dividing line between others. I vowed right then that I wouldn’t let hate win in my life, that I would go wherever God called and do my best to show His love to people made to feel like outsiders and outcasts.
God changed my heart that day and gave me a love for others that would shake the foundation of my life. I was launched into a wide world of diversity, full of color and beauty, mess and brokenness, love and empathy.
Six years later many wounds were still fresh from the events of 9/11 and the resulting conflicts. I sat in another Arabic class that year, surrounded by Muslim friends who were now my neighbors. I was with my husband, living in the Middle East. Many people back home thought we were mad for choosing to move there but we were motivated by the same love that I felt years ago at the base of that arch.
9/11 may have been a tragedy that rocked our world, but it was 9/12 that rocked mine. I will forever be saddened by the divide that was created that day. But for the ways God moved me out of myself and showed me how to love more fearlessly, I will forever be grateful.
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