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Hope after 9/11
Lesson of 9/12 shows forgiveness can overcome cycle of violence and retaliation


Lyndon Harris
   (Lyndon Harris)
As priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Chapel across Church Street from the World Trade Center, I automatically replied “60,000” whenever someone asked me the number of members in my congregation.  That’s how many people worked at the trade center.

Five years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my office when I heard a loud crack.  It was the sound of the first plane striking the north tower. What followed that day was a harrowing mélange of near-escapes, fear, heroism and confusion. But the horror and heroics of 9/11 is only the beginning of the story that has been covered by every media outlet in the world.

Less public but equally important is the story of 9/12: the day we decided to get out of bed as individuals and as a community to respond to the acts of violence with hearts of courage and compassion as we sought to rescue survivors and, ultimately, to find the remains of the dead. That day was long – it lasted from Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001, until June 2, 2002, when recovery work at the World Trade Center site was declared finished.

On Sept. 12, I put on my boots and I walked the mile and a half from my apartment in Greenwich Village to St. Paul’s Chapel.  Every step of the way, my heart was beating in my throat, fully expecting to find St. Paul’s demolished.

When I first saw the spire of St. Paul’s Chapel standing defiantly, it took my breath away.  As I walked around the church, which was covered in debris and ashes, I marveled at the fact that it was still standing. But the miracle was not just that we survived, but also that we now had a big job to do.

Heart of ministry

Over the course of the next eight-and-a-half months, we were privileged to serve more than half a million meals and to provide chiropractors, massage therapists, podiatrists, grief counselors, food-service personnel and clergy to relief workers in a ministry that went around the clock day after day, month after month.  To me, this nine-month ministry at St. Paul’s was nothing less than a glimpse into the truth of the kingdom of God.

In addition to overseeing relief efforts at St. Paul’s Chapel, I also made it a priority every day to make a “pastoral visit” into the World Trade Center site. As I walked through it, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, seeing these overwhelming sights -- twisted, gnarly steel and debris and the agonizing faces of the men and women doing the digging -- and as I said last rites and prayers and blessings over body bags and remains, the question kept coming to me, day after day after day: “How in God’s name do we end this cycle of violence, revenge and retribution?”

The answer did not come to me quickly, nor was it easy. Over time, the answer to my heartfelt, gut-wrenching question emerged as the word “forgiveness.” Forgiveness, as Jesus had done on the cross when he was slandered and crucified.

Forgiveness had been at the heart of my faith all along. While I had been preaching about forgiveness for 12 years as a pastor, Jesus’ agonizing words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” suddenly had deep meaning for me.  In the context of the devastation and the agony referred to as Ground Zero, I finally caught a glimpse of the message of the one to whom I had dedicated my life.

Forgiveness. By choosing to forgive, we choose intentionally not to perpetuate the cycle of violence and revenge. By choosing to forgive, we stand in awe of the horrors that can happen to people in this world, and we decide neither to participate in them nor repay them.

Forgiveness is healing

Gandhi once said, rightfully so, that “an eye for an eye leaves both eyes blind.”  Forgiveness allows us to replace “an eye for an eye” with “an eye for a heart.”  A while ago, I connected with the work of Dr. Frederic Luskin, who is director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects.  He is the author of the bestselling book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.

Luskin’s work shows that learning to forgive is good for our physical and emotional health. His research has shown that forgiveness reduces blood pressure, releases anger, anxiety and stress, and increases hope, compassion and wellness in those willing to forgive. As stated on the book’s jacket, “Holding a grudge is hazardous for your health.” 

The Stanford Forgiveness Projects created a simple methodology that shows us step by step how to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Luskin’s nine steps of forgiveness provide a technology, so to speak, to be able to do what Jesus has asked us to do these 2,000 years since his death.

Luskin says forgiveness does not mean that we excuse evil acts perpetrated against us.  It does not mean that we can’t or shouldn’t defend ourselves, nor does it mean that we condone destructive behavior.

Forgiveness does not even mean that we must reconcile ourselves with the perpetrator.  Forgiveness means that we take stock of what has happened, we grieve our losses and we deliberately make the world a better place by not repaying violence for violence.

What I urge is that, five years after the horrific attacks of 9/11, we, the church community, publicly commit ourselves to the message of forgiveness.  We commit to teaching forgiveness and, where possible, model a forgiving nature.  We commit to the vision of 9/12, where everyone does his or her piece to heal this world that is riddled with hatred and violence.

We commit ourselves to releasing our grudges and grievances and to teaching our parishes to do so as well.  Finally, we commit to learn how to forgive, whether that is through prayer or by partnering with those who have proven technologies, such as Frederic Luskin’s, so that forgiveness becomes more common in this world than anger and revenge.