To this day, I think country singer Alan Jackson has the most poignant remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. His song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” reminds us of the many emotions that people felt as we came to grips with the reality that our nation had been attacked.
More than 3,000 people died when hijackers used passenger jets as missiles aimed at the World Trade Center towers in New York City and The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Another 44 people died when they forced their plane into a field in Pennsylvania rather than let four hijackers strike yet another building.
It was a bright, clear Tuesday morning on Sept. 11, 2001. I was the newspaper editor of The Spectrum & Daily News in St. George, Utah. The sun was actually just coming up at the back edge of the Mountain Time Zone, and my day started off with the same routine. I was sitting in my chair and eating some cereal while watching the end of the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate’s broadcast and awaiting the “Today” show’s start. The anchor in Salt Lake City wrapped up by saying there were reports of a plane striking one of the World Trade Center towers and that the NBC news crews would provide more information on “Today.”
My custom was to watch the first 15 to 20 minutes of that show and then get ready for the short drive to work. Just minutes into the “Today” show, host Matt Lauer was on the phone conducting an interview with a woman in another building when the second plane hit another Trade Center tower. I remember the woman saying something like “air traffic control must be having major problems,” or something to that effect.
Her words reflected what many of us wanted to believe – this was a series of terrible accidents.
But that wasn’t the case. And I had a feeling this was a huge event.
I quickly ran upstairs and got dressed. Upon arriving at the office, I worked with my good friend author Ed Kociela, who was serving as our senior writer in our Cedar City office about 50 miles to our north, to organize a meeting at which time we planned out our coverage for that day and a few pieces of what we figured was to come in the next 48 to 72 hours.
I don’t in any way ascribe to the thought that journalists have the same mentality of police officers, firefighters and paramedics – so many of whom we lost that day when the buildings collapsed. But journalists do have a knack for shifting focus on the job at hand. To this day, I’m immensely proud of the way my team put aside the emotions we all felt that day and focused on telling the story through the lense of our Southern Utah audience. Ed managed to track down several people from our area who were in New York in Washington D.C., that day. Other reporters provided stories about travel snarls, potential threats in the area and even how we should approach the subject of such a large-scale tragedy with our children.
The emotions came later that night, as the paper was rolling on the press. I remember sitting down after an incredibly long, nerve-wracking day and asking the questions that so many other people had in the wake of the devastation: Why did this happen? How do we combat evil? How can I help? What is my purpose?
I still have that Sept. 12, 2001, newspaper in a bin in our house. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it despite the move from Utah to Nebraska.
As the dust literally settled and as we learned about the scope of the death and devastation, an interesting thing happened across our country: People flocked back to church.
In St. George, I spent that next Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001, covering the story of the dedication of a new United Methodist Church sanctuary. Shepherd of the Hills UMC had started as a Bible study in a woman’s living room about eight years prior to that day. It was quite a celebration, though the mood was subdued because of the events of that week.
Most churches, I would suspect, were quite full Sept. 16, 2001, as people tried to come to grips with the tragedy and tried to sort through how such a terrible thing could happen.
The church clearly had something that people needed. If it was merely something they wanted, they would have been there Sept. 9. The attendance numbers at churches across the country rose steadily for several weeks, in some cases months.
Then, complacency came back. And people who flocked toward God during a time of fear started to abandon him again when they felt secure again, back to normal in their lives.
Those of us who sought out a relationship with God prior to the attacks and continue to do so afterward often get miffed at such behavior. How could people see such a clear need for attendance in worship after a tragedy and not see the need now? Thankfully, we haven’t had any kind of large-scale terrorist event on U.S. soil since those attacks, but we still see hardship every day: people without food or shelter, children who can’t receive the education they need, the sick unable to gain access to medications and other forms of care.
And, yes, we see death every day due to violence, hatred and bigotry.
I find solace and hope in Romans 12:1-2 – “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Each time I study the Scriptures and attend worship, I feel like my mind is renewed. In our United Methodist churches, we encourage those listening to hear the words, process them and interpret their meaning for themselves. What the pastor says may mean one thing to one person and something else to another. So long as the overall messages of grace, loving others and the importance of building a relationship with God are components, then everyone can come away from a worship service with a one-on-one experience with the Holy Spirit.
I may be oversimplifying that point, but that’s how I look at it.
Our struggle as Christians is to help people who don’t attend worship regularly to understand why they shouldn’t just want a relationship with God but that they need a relationship with God. Then, they too can “test and approve what God’s will is.” They will have a better understanding of the answers to the questions: How can I help? What is my purpose?
Coincidentally, those are two of those question so many of us asked on Sept. 11, 2001.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference. The opinions expressed in his blog are his own and may not be representative of the conference or the worldwide United Methodist Church.