I remember staring at the television screen in disbelief and horror. I was 23 and working as a youth pastor at a church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001. Someone came into my office and said to come to the television. The other pastors, the janitor, the church secretary, and the guy who shredded our paper stood around the TV in the church nursery as the towers fell. I remember saying out loud as I watched people jumping to save their lives: “Those are real people.”
It was later that we heard that the planes were landing at our local airport, not very far from where we were sitting. It was later that we found out that 150 people were coming to spend the night in our church gym, and we would need to get ready. It was later that the day started to change in my memory.
Of course, I remember the devastation and the heartbreak. I will never forget.
But, because I was living in a city in the most easterly part of Canada, where planes diverted from the U.S. air space were forced to land, and because I was working in a large church, and because our church had a gym big enough to hold a lot of people, I remember a lot more about 9-11 and the days that followed, than the horror. I remember how people came together and created something beautiful, when it seemed like there could only ever be room for ugly ever again.
I remember the generosity.
I remember when we had to start asking people to stop bringing sleeping bags to the church that first night. Our church was listed as a temporary shelter on the news, and within an hour, we couldn’t handle anymore blankets or pillows. People just kept showing up with more, and more, and more. Everyone wanted to help. Within a couple of hours of being told we would have 150 people staying with us, we had set up 150 beds, each with air mattress, pillow, sleeping gear – all donated.
I remember walking through Sobey’s at 1 in the morning, the only grocery store in town open that late, buying breakfast for 150 people. I remember that the next day, we had so much food donated that we didn’t even need what we’d purchased.
I remember walking into the church every day for the next five days that the plane people ended up staying to tables overflowing with donations of food and clothes. I remember when a small town on the other side of the island donated a gourmet fish buffet hosted by a local restaurant for everyone staying at our church. I remember when the most expensive restaurant in town came and hosted a prime rib dinner, with their top chef carving the beef for 150 guests.
I remember when a few people couldn’t sleep one night because of snoring. I went to a Shoppers and asked if we could get some ear plugs for our church because we were hosting plane people. They handed me over a box of 200 packs, no more questions asked.
I remember moments of joy.
I remember taking people around the city in a borrowed van. I remember watching their amazement when they got to the top of Signal Hill and said “we didn’t even know this place existed in the world!” I remember walking into stores and tourist spots and being told everything was free because we had “plane people” with us.
I remember staying up late with the stragglers and singing karaoke. I remember how much our English friends ended up loving Tim Horton’s, especially Tim Bits. I remember when one guy decided to dress up as Santa for the children.
I remember laughing until our sides hurt when a woman came to a group of us saying she couldn’t find her “nickers” – her underwear – which had been sent out for dry cleaning. When she explained where the dry cleaning rack was, one woman realized she had taken them thinking they were a donation. “I’m wearing your nickers!!” she declared, to her shock and shame. And we all cried we laughed so hard.
I remember friends.
I remember forming a group with six people that became our pose. I remember one of the guys showing me the engagement ring he was carrying his pocket, ready to propose at just the right moment when they finally got to Los Angeles. I remember bringing one woman to my house so she could have a bath. In our bathroom there was a little wooden sign that said, “Baths’ -5 cents.” I remember a few days later discovering a nickel left on top of the sign.
Yes, I remember the hard stuff too.
I remember the stares of people who didn’t turn away from the TV news. I remember the never ending lines for the phones, those desperate to get home, the couple that missed their son’s wedding and the woman who sobbed on my shoulder because she was so tired and overwhelmed. I remember how scared everyone was to get back on a plane. I remember crying together, often.
But I also remember…love.
Yes, it sounds cheesy, but I can’t think of a better word. It was a surreal time – we had just witnessed the worst act of hate most of us had ever seen in our lifetimes, and I was living in a corner of the world where love was everywhere. It was like we were surrounded by an anthem everyday: “Hate will not win.”
Terror had happened, it was true, but we were still able to eat together, laugh together, cry together – and accidentally share each other’s underwear.
It is one of the times in my life that I have felt the very closest to God. God was everywhere it seemed to me, reminding us in our little corner that what seemed like the end wasn’t going to be. Hate would not win.
So forgive me if it seems a bit callous to say, but it is true that on September 11, even as I feel very sad, I can’t help but smile a little, too. I smile because – I remember.