Friday, September 10, 2021

Thomas Kemper: Reflecting on September 11th

Today’s post is by Thomas Kemper, translated by David W. Scott. Kemper is former General Secretary of Global Ministries. This piece appears in its original German in the September 12th issue of unterwegs, the magazine of the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (UMC in Germany).

Where were you, dear readers, on September 11, 2001? I was in the office of the EmK-Weltmission (mission agency of the UMC in Germany) in our house in Wuppertal. My children, still elementary school aged, rushed to my desk and were the first to tell me that a plane had flown into a skyscraper in New York. I had traveled to New York many times before, including as director of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Church's agency for mission, which was based there.  We had our Weltmission office in the basement of our house, and I quickly walked upstairs, just in time to watch live as the second plane hit the World Trade Centre. This is how it is for almost all of us of a certain age: we remember where we were on September 11, 2001.

Later, I witnessed the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack in Manhattan itself. I then worked there as the leader of the mission work of our Church. I saw how the deep, dark crater in the heart of Manhattan transformed over many, many years into a new, living center dominated by the so-called Freedom Tower. I witnessed how the very authentic memories of the construction fences and of Trinity Church, where the first aid had been organized on September 11, were replaced by an impressive museum. And I saw how the narratives about what September 11th means led to more and more conflicts and cracks in American society.

Certainly, the most moving place of remembrance are the two basins with constantly flowing water, exactly where the foundations of the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood. All the names of the victims are engraved. It is an important sign for the relatives, because no traces of most of the dead could be found under the rubble. So, this memorial is aptly called: Reflecting Absence.

Orlando Rodriguez experienced and suffered through this absence. He belongs to Memorial Church, the UMC congregation in White Plains that we visited during our New York years. He comes from Cuba, had already been a Methodist there, and was now also a very committed parishioner in the USA. His wife Phyllis is Jewish but also visited our church services from time to time. On September 11, Greg, their only son, had not managed to make it out of the World Trade Center, where he had his job. He died there with so many others. His remains were never found. All the more important for Phyllis and Orlando was the public collective memory of the victims year after year.
On September 15, just four days after the terrible death of their son, they wrote an open letter in which they said:

"Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack. Since we heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair... We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We … sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands, dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name.

“Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world.”

Today, 20 years later, when I read these lines and see the pictures of desperate people from Afghanistan, I am overcome with sorrow and shame that we were not more courageous to stand up for a non-violent response, as Orlando and Phyllis did. Instead, it came to a military response, which not only dramatically worsened relationships between Muslims and Christians but also brought so much more suffering and so much more death to Afghanistan and many other parts of the world. In Afghanistan alone, the US invested $2 trillion in the war. And these days, we are witnessing the final failure of this response.
The letter resulted in the campaign "Not in our son's name." Phyllis met with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the co-conspirators of September 11th. She publicly campaigned against the death penalty for Moussaoui. The two mothers, Jewish and Muslim, regularly came together and became friends. Not in the name of our sons! Stop abusing religion to spread hatred and violence. As Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.”

15 years after the terrorist attack, a documentary was released about Phyllis and Orlando and their untiring and intrepid reconciliation work. We showed it at one of our Board meetings in New York. Afterwards, our directors from all over the world were able to ask their questions in a personal conversation with Phyllis and Orlando. Inspired by the two of them, our colleagues went home encouraged to look for non-violent answers to conflicts in the Philippines, Nigeria and many other places.

Once I came very close to terror, in June 2016 in a suicide attack on Istanbul's Ata Türk Airport, where over 40 people died. I can still clearly hear the explosions that tore me out of a short nap in the airport lounge. I see the rushing, fleeing, frightened people around me. I feel my fear as I hid in a kitchen cabinet together with another man with whom I had no common language. We shared the fear because nobody knew how many terrorists were still in the airport. Many hours of anxiety and panic.

After that, still in the lounge and now almost all alone, I wrote on Facebook. I wanted to inform my colleagues that I was safe, because they knew I had flown through Istanbul: "I feel safe now. Now that terror has come so close to me, it brings me even more gratitude for my life and my family. And terror calls for us to work against hatred and terror wherever they show up. It leads us into a deeper solidarity with all those who experience terror and violence not just once, but every day and every night. "

I think of the young, veiled Turkish woman who at some point sat next to me crying bitterly. She told me falteringly in English that she had actually only brought a friend to the airport and then in the chaos had somehow gotten on the wrong side and was now without papers in the international terminal. Now she was very afraid. She could not reach anyone and feared being treated as terrorist. And I think of Sudjit Pereira from Sri Lanka, who still calls me today on every anniversary of the attack, because at the time I lent him my cell phone, with which he could call and reassure his completely distraught family. A common humanity.

Somehow, that Facebook message of mine came to CNN, and I was interviewed that night by the well-known host Anderson Cooper. This resulted in dozens of interviews with broadcasters from all over the world: BBC and Al Jazeera, ABC and some German broadcasters among them. I think a reason for the many requests was that I had already tried on CNN to talk about the meaning of religion. Everywhere I tried to talk about how important it is that we give room for conversation and friendship between the believers of all religions. A network of peace, in which religions are at the forefront.

That must be the lesson and the message of September 11th: religions that contribute to peace and reconciliation and not to more hatred, violence and exclusion. There is no alternative in this global world. Will we, as the Methodist Church, contribute to this goal? Or shall we remain in our own fragmentation and internal strife? We should courageously lean far out of the window of our own comfort, seek dialogue and build bridges.

1 comment:

  1. Respectfully, the world supported the intervention in Afghanistan. Many nations formed the coalition.

    Second, the purported reason for the united campaign was to prevent the Taliban from having a staging ground from which they could launch a global jihad. 9/11 demonstrated the intent and ability of the jihadists. A violent and evil ideology with the ability to train and deploy large numbers of soldiers all over the world is an outcome that must be resisted by the world. Arguably, over the last 20 years, the Taliban did not have the capability to continue its global jihad.

    Third, the social situation in Afghanistan is better now than it was when the international coalition entered. For example, women have found their voices and Christianity has greatly expanded. Persecution, repression, a denial of human rights, and murder are tools that the Taliban will employ to force people back into their box. Let's hope that the people will resist and that the church will bear true faith in Jesus as it suffers for the Savior.

    Fourth, things would have ended better if the US president had coordinated the pull-back and worked more closely with the Afghanistan leadership.

    Finally, I want to thank all the people of the coalition who gave their blood, lives, and time to confront the wicked Taliban in Afghanistan. No victory is forever and no loss is permanent. I pray that the good that you did will be rewarded in this world and in the world to come.

    Bill Payne, Chaplain