The Power of Place

Something that I continually marvel at is the power that certain places have over us. Last week we were headed to brunch with a friend and it just so happened our metro stop was at the 9-11 memorial. We decided we would go a bit early and spend some time at the memorial. When we left the hotel the sky was starting to turn gray. By the time we emerged from the underground it was black and the rain was was slowly soaking everything. It was one of those rains that we never get in New Mexico–a misting deeply penetrating rain that seems to hang in the air. We made our way to the plaza. As soon as I crossed the street and set foot on the hallowed grounds I was overwhelmed with emotion. There have been a few other places where I have felt this: the grounds of Saxenhausen concentration camp, the killing fields of Cambodia, the shrine to the genocide in Nanjing, Revolutionary war and Civil war battlefields. When that kind of death takes place in a location something is left behind. It is a physical feeling, not just emotional. There is a weight. Almost like you can feel the pain of those who died in that place. All at once you have the feeling of great weight and great emptiness. If you have been to one of those places, I imagine you know of what I write. It sucks the air right out of you.

As you wander up to the memorial you are immediately struck by just how beautifully this place is memorialized. You look down into these building sized fountains and watch as water disappears into the emptiness that lies below. I don’t know that I have seen a shrine that so deeply captures the overwhelming weight and emptiness of a place of sorrow. It was powerful. It immediately brought back the memories I have of September 11, 2001.

I was in my freshmen year of college at the University of North Texas. I woke up relatively early that morning because I had a class. Within a few minutes I received a call from my mother. She immediately asked, “Have you seen the news?” Of course I hadn’t. I was a college student–not really watching the news and it was way too early in the morning. She told me I needed to turn it on immediately. I did so just in time to watch as the second plane hit the buildings. I watched holding the phone to my ear in stunned silence. I continued to watch as long as I could before I had to run to music theory.

I arrived with about half the usual number of students ( a class of about 500). Dr. Cho announced that we wouldn’t be having class today. If we had family close by we needed to go be with them, if not head back to the dorm to be with friends to watch as the day unfolds. He then held up the hymn that we were supposed to analyze that morning. We usually used church hymns for dissecting to understand the basic concepts of music theory. That day, the plan had been to sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Dr. Cho announced that instead of doing theory, we were going to sing the hymn together that morning. And so a teary eyed bunch of college freshmen wept through the first verse, and then we headed back to our dorms. As I walked in the front room, I and everybody else headed straight for the large TV in the common room. As I started to walk up a good ole’ boy and his crew started to run from the space screaming racist epithets and something along the lines of “Let’s kill every last one of them.” I couldn’t help but notice the silver cross that hung around the kids neck. At that point, it had been established who had flown these planes into these buildings. Three days later, the Mosque in Denton, TX (where I was living) would be the target of a firebombing.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that would be the beginning of my calling to ministry. You see, I had just spent the last summer traveling through Turkey. I had been warmly welcomed and cared for by Muslims in that place, and the mere thought of what was being unleashed in our country in the wake of 9-11 made me sick to my stomach. Often times, these atrocities were being justified with supposedly Christian rhetoric. Years later, when I had started my ministry, that moment would become a guide to what I wanted my ministry to look like. I had grown up in a place where being Christian often looked like a tribal religion that fenced itself against anyone who did not believe exactly as you did. Usually, I was the only progressively minded Christian in most of my classes at school. I vividly remember being in an American History class where the supposedly “Christian” teacher made a sport out of stoking the rage of the other evangelicals against myself, the girl who described herself as Wiccan and an Atheist. I was familiar with the kind of Christianity that led that young man to scream those things on 9-11. It was what I grew up with. It was the kind of Christianity that I would feel a calling to speak against as a pastor.

In those few brief moments walking around the memorial, all of this came pouring back. I don’t think that it was just the rain, but it was pretty clear many of the eyes in that place were dripping as mine were. As I continued to walk, I could hear lines from Lament psalms echoing through my mind, “By the Rivers of Babylon, there we lay down and there we wept as we remembered Zion.” “With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.” There is certainly a place for feelings of pain, sorrow, anguish, and even anger. There is also a way we are called to respond to that as Christians. Otherwise our response may lead to the creation of more places of weight and emptiness.

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