When I was younger, particularly, but really for a lifetime, I can remember instances where people were talking about how they remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot or that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. I was born after both of those instances. But I could tell that there was something important about sharing those memories. For my generation, we had a bit of this with the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. I remember that I was in science class at school when I heard about it. But for us, really, it's now 9/11 that holds this strange fixed moment in our cultural consciousness. I think it's true not just for us, but maybe a bit more so, since we aren't old enough to have experienced those tragic deaths of JFK and MLK, much less the World War II moments that still loom large for that greatest generation.
My story of 9/11/01 is intricately woven with the beginning of my ministry. I was in my first month of ministry, fresh out of seminary. I had started about a week into August, and the Sunday following 9/11/01 would be our ingathering Sunday, the official start to the church year. I was at home in my new Houston apartment when I got a call from our music director. She asked me if I had heard the news, if I had my television on. I hadn't. I remember her saying, "The World Trade Center is gone. It' gone." I turned on my television as she told me the news. And she asked me, "Do you think we should have a vigil this evening?" I said, "I'm not sure, I'll call you back in a few with a decision. Let me process this."
Two more calls from church members followed in rapid succession to make sure I had heard the news and to find out if we would have a service. By the second one, I said yes, and started to make all the plans -- called the music director to start planning the musical elements, called the president to start the phone tree so that people would get the news, and had somebody calling the television stations to get us on the list of services.
In my memory it was that very day, but perhaps it was the next day, that I had a meeting with the local Houston-area UU ministers. What a blessing that was. They shared resources that they had been thinking about for vigils and for the following Sunday: Annie Dillard, Anne Frank, Adrienne Rich.
I get the vigil we had and the following Sunday conflated in my memory. I know at the Sunday service we had our usual water communion. And I remember somebody bringing water from their trip to the World Trade Center. Whether it was actual water from there or symbolic water, I can't tell you. To me, it was water that came from the World Trade Center, and it was there with us in our water communion. I've carried that water as part of our water communion since -- I took some water from that water communion with me to my next congregation, and to the one that followed (my current congregation), and saved water from year to year. The World Trade Center is still there in the drops of water we pour every year into our common bowl at our water communion.
Other things I remember from those services are that we had a fireman in our congregation who shared the Fireman's Prayer with us, and that even as far away as Houston, there were people with connections at the Pentagon and in New York City. We shared with the entire country the pain, the fear, and the longing to get up and go and be of some help as we watched the endless process to try to find survivors and identify the dead unfold through our television sets.
This was the beginning of my ministry as a UU minister. And that I ministered through this time is still one of my biggest accomplishments as a minister. Nothing in seminary had prepared us for this situation. Those of us who were new in the field had had no training on how to craft a vigil after 9/11, how to minister to the fear and pain that was a national experience like this, how to be a non-anxious presence when the entire country was feeling the most anxiety it had ever felt in our lifetime. We were new and green in a raw and earth-shattering moment.
I didn't do everything perfectly, I know. I remember the competing tensions even then about patriotism and religion -- Do we sing "God Bless America"? Do we use a flag print cloth as our altar cover? But as I look back now as a minister with ten years experience, and open the files and read my words from that time in 2001, I wouldn't do anything differently. It was real and genuine. I'll be using some of those same resources my Houston colleagues shared with me from 2001 in 2011, and am still grateful for what I learned from them on that September day.