Close to our home is a craggy overlook where we frequently take guests for spectacular views of New York City. On a clear night you look north and see the diamond necklace of the George Washington Bridge; to the south, you pick out the sparkle of the Statue of Liberty. You watch planes circle to land at LaGuardia, Kennedy or Newark airports.
We went there the night of the great blackout and peered into a dark abyss. Over the years we watched the World Trade Center being built and we witnessed the first night the windows were all lighted. On some misty days, we could see the twin towers rise mysteriously above the clouds.
On Sept. 11, there was only gray smoke. An awesome pillar of smoke.
Then the television images, crowds gathered at churches, the president's speech, and the flags—all these prompt memories. As President Bush rallied the nation, I heard echoes from my boyhood, when we huddled around a big brown Zenith radio to hear President Roosevelt describe a day of infamy. I also recalled the gravelly voice of President Johnson, not long after John F. Kennedy was killed, insist on civil rights legislation, startling his largely white audience with a litany of "We shall overcome."
The uncertainty that followed the events of Sept. 11 brought other memories as well. On the eve of the Gulf War, I was part of a delegation that went to Baghdad, hoping to carry a word of reason to Saddam Hussein. He wouldn't see us. But we saw his arrogant parade grounds and a lurid exhibit of modern art dominated, strangely, by a huge oil painting of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. A few weeks later, Desert Storm demonstrated both American military might and the fact that warfare sometimes complicates the struggle for justice and peace.
Nor can I forget the ugly explosions we heard from our recent office near the YMCA in East Jerusalem. That day suicide bombers left innocent lives and hopes for peace mortally wounded. There also was the night when Yitsak Rabin was gunned down. Frightening times. Sad memories.
Two threads hold this contemporary tapestry of agony and fear together.
One thread is the comforting ministry of the church. When we learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor, all my family could think about was my uncle, a civilian construction engineer on Wake Island. My grandmother found great comfort from the church and finally was able to rejoice when she learned that my uncle was alive as a prisoner of war.
The other thread is the prophetic witness of the church. That small Iowa town in the early '40s was an unlikely place for the voice of reason. But word trickled in that American citizens of Japanese ancestry had been herded into detention camps on the West Coast and members of a tiny church spoke out. Their convictions made a lasting impression on at least one teenager.
Today the churches surround with compassion and love those whose lives have suddenly been turned upside down. Prayers in our New Jersey churches these days are poignantly personal: For a neighbor, whose office was on the 102nd floor. For the family of a friend who made a final telephone call. For one member, planning his retirement, who had breakfast with his broker at Windows on the World. For a young woman who still works long hours as a police officer. For another woman who is seeking new homes for pets that suddenly need adoption. And for worried friends in the Middle East—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—who yearn for peace rather than continued turmoil and destruction.
In a state where anger, like grief, is close to the emotional surface, the churches are working with mosques and synagogues to preserve human dignity, to counsel against racial and ethnic profiling, and to discourage the wanton destruction that demands an eye for an eye.
Soon we will return to our craggy overlook. For us it has become a viewpoint as well.
The Rev. J. Martin Bailey is the former editor of both United Church Herald and A.D. magazine.