Many years ago, Doan and I visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. We walked the grounds where those towers stood, towers that I had used to orient myself when downtown, towers that so many of us were in and out of for work, for transportation. I figured out with some certainty where my favorite lunch cart used to sit, chicken and rice and beans for six bucks, served by the always smiling woman from somewhere in Central America, I can’t remember where. We read the names of the dead on the monuments, traced them with our fingers, cried a bit while listening to the flowing water. As we walked the footprints of the towers, where steel and glass once reflected not just the sun, but the optimism, the hope, the progress of the American experiment, I couldn’t help but think of Billy Graham speaking at the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral a week after the attacks. Graham spoke about how tragedy of the lives lost, the horrific destruction, and of how underneath the debris, a foundation that was not destroyed.
How firm a foundation, the old hymn goes. How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord…Fear not, I am with thee; oh be not dismayed; For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
How firm a foundation. It’s been twenty years, twenty years since nineteen terrorists hijacked four planes, planes filled with innocent people, and turned them into weapons. 2,977 people were killed that day, the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil. The attacks caused the deaths of 441 first responders, 343 of them firefighters, the greatest loss of emergency responders on a single day in American history. Mychal Judge, Catholic priest and FDNY chaplain, was the first confirmed fatality, victim 0001.
From bumper stickers to flags to Facebook posts, we are constantly reminded to “Never Forget” that day, as if there’s a chance that such a day would go forgotten. That day “irrevocably changed the lives of victims’ families and friends, survivors, first responders, rescue and recovery workers, volunteers, and millions of Americans and people around the world. The legacies of the attacks continue to affect foreign policy, national security, civic discourse, airline security, building safety, the law, and countless individual lives.” None of us will ever forget. No one who has ever seen what first responders see daily will ever lose dread that comes upon them when those images are seen, when those memories are stoked.
But we can choose how we remember that day. We can and will always memorialize the dead, honor those who risked everything, and care for those left behind. We can get angry, angry again, and that’s fine. But we can also allow our hearts to heal, to fill up, to rest on the firm foundation of our Lord.
For out of the very worst man was capable of, the very best was brought forth.
Who can forget the innumerable acts of selfless bravery made on that day? The first responders, military personnel, and civilians who ran toward the fire, who said “Let’s Roll,” knowing full well that the darkness ahead of them was the shadow of death. Or those who spent hours, days, weeks and months on the rescue and recovery effort, those who lost their lives due to the events of that day, just slower. Or the innumerable people who did what they could, under the most difficult of circumstances, to be of help? I’ll never forget the restaurants in Sea Bright bringing refreshments down to Highlands for the mariners and survivors being evacuated from lower Manhattan in the Great Boatlift, the largest water evacuation in history. Those who gave money, time, their own blood, gave anything they could to help. Those who faced the worst, armed with faith, stepping into the darkness with the hope of finding a firm foundation.
This spirit is exemplified by the men and women we honor here today, Bordentown’s bravest, best and finest. I’ve seen it myself, of course; the countless hours spent in training and on scenes, caring for our neighbors, so often on the worst day of their lives. Our first responders have proven themselves worthy over and over, and one of our own, Lori Engler, was just named by the Burlington County Women’s Advisory Council to be Outstanding Woman of the Year in the Category of First Responder. Lori’s getting married tomorrow, and I’ve been wanting to tell John that he can now join me off in the corner in our wives’ shadows.
We have here a firm foundation, and this is how I am choosing to remember and bear witness to the events of 9/11. With sadness, with some fear, with anger, yes, but with every attempt to rest my heart on the firm foundation of our Lord; remembering that the empty tomb came only after the Cross, remembering that out of the very worst man was capable of, the very best was brought forth.