I was riding home from church today listening to a radio spot in between innings of the Mets game. A bunch of random people were each quoting one line about where they were when the events of September 11, 2001 took place in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and, of course, New York City. “I was walking to class in Minneapolis”. “I was sleeping.” “I was taking my children to school.” Fortunately, I was a lot closer to the attacks myself. (Yes, I said fortunately.) I was about 6 blocks down the street. Walking distance. And although I went through periods of fear and post-traumatic shock (“Gee, I almost went to take a closer look. I could have been crushed“), I realized that I was right where God wanted me to be when those terrible attacks took place.
To understand my story, you need to understand a bit about me first. Even though I’ve only been living for about thirty years, I’ve had a remarkable life. I think anyone who is blessed enough to be born in a country where you have access to education, an abundance of food, running water and all of the necessities (and some luxuries) of life has probably lived a remarkable life. (As someone I greatly respect always says, “It could have been the other way!”). Anyhow, with all that I had been blessed with, I didn’t necessarily grow up in a home where we knew God. Sure, we said grace when it was time to eat and we made our way to church for special occasions, but I would come to learn that we didn’t really rely on God the way that we really should.
One other thing that you’d need to understand about me is that, despite all that I try to do to counteract this behavior, I have a tendency to be…. well, how would you say…. “a bit behind schedule”? I struggle with being on time. (Although I’m getting a lot better now.)
Every business day for five years since I had been working at my former company I generally didn’t reach the office before nine. Not necessarily because I was late. Working in technical help desk support, I was able schedule my time with a certain degree of flexibility. My first schedule was 12pm – 8pm (not by choice.) Later I would work a 10am – 6pm schedule for the majority of my nine plus years of service. There were only a few days when I would wake up earlier. Special meetings. Presentations. Client visits. But considering the stress and the rush of commuting in New York City from Queens to Manhattan, I enjoyed the flexibility and the lighter pressure of a shifted schedule.
The client that I was servicing was due for a laptop upgrade. Each of that company’s sales reps would send in their machines and my staff would upgrade them. My client contact was from Chicago and she choose the week of September 3rd – 7th to do the upgrade. For some reason, she called me in late August and notified me she was moving the scheduling one week — from September 10th -14th.
She flew in on Sunday and in an e-mail she agreed to meet me at 8:45 on Monday morning. I made it in at 8:40. But somehow she had already been to our office and was in our rollout room. I felt an incredible sense of disappointment in myself. Sure, I came earlier than we agreed, but business etiquette should have taught me to be waiting for her at 8am. It bothered me the entire day. Even though we agreed that day to meet at 9am, I made a personal commitment to myself that I would be there every day for the rest of the rollout no later than 8:20.
I remember the next morning as any other. I got a good night’s rest. I felt no fatigue. Just took the bus to the train like any other day. When I came up from taking the J-Train, I saw a bunch of people crowding around and looking north in the direction of the towers. Fire was emitting from the side of the building. Selfishly, all I could think of was, “Oh boy. A fire. As if it isn’t crowded enough down here already. Now we’re going to have scaffolding all over the place while they try and fix the building.” I heard murmuring throughout the street about “a plane”. Other murmurings mentioned a “blown gas leak”. I stood there with the rest of the crowd for about 8 minutes or so before I realized that I was far past 8:20… I had a rollout to complete. And so I turned and walked south….with my back facing the towers.
As I reached the end of the street, I recall something urging me to turn around. I remember a screeching sound and then…. boom. (I would later learn that this was when the 2nd tower was hit.) People were running aimlessly. Yelling. Arms flailing. I remember standing in front of my good friend Dennis who was also on his way in to the office. We literally just looked at each other — without words — for about a full minute.
I made my way upstairs as part of the management team to try and calm everyone down and deduce the situation. I had made up in my mind that if it was a choice between the safety of our technicians and “completing a rollout”, the lives came first. Of course there was lots of chaos among our staff. Radios listening to reports of “possible terrorist attacks”…. webpages refreshing MSNBC.com, where images were shown only blocks away from us. I remember one of my technicians James yelling out, “They just hit the Pentagon — that’s it. I’m going home!” At that point I was discussing with our management team what our next steps should be. As their thoughts seemed to be centered around securing the assets in the building, foolishly I was focusing on the people. Many looked to me for guidance and, like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, I could only see their lips moving, but I wasn’t hearing anyone.
We were standing at my window when the first tower fell. (From my old desk, if you lean over the shelf near my window, you could see World Financial Center down the street.) Someone shouted, “The building fell down! The building fell down!” And everyone rushed for the vestibule with the elevators — which was as far away from my window as our office allows.
There were about seven of us. All huddled together. Of course, everyone has a degree in Physics now and tells you that buildings implode under pressure. However, at the time when we were standing near the window, all we could see was darkness as the dust and debris covered our windows. It may sound silly, but from the inside of our building, we thought we were going to die under the weight of a building that had fallen (and apparently in our direction — there was dust everywhere.) And when we began to smell smoke (“Oh my God…do you smell that? I don’t want to die!”), some of us knew these were our last moments in this existence.
One moment I won’t forget was my friend Roosevelt. While everyone else was curled up in the fetal position (or should I say fatal position), Roosevelt had a different idea. He threw up his hands and said “Lord, please help us! You are the only one that can save us now!” He had no shame. He wasn’t concerned with how it would look to the rest of us. He looked upwards and talked to his Father, who at that time, I truly didn’t know for myself.
Somehow after looking at each other, we realized that we weren’t dead. We asked if everyone was o.k. (now, in retrospect, it sounds like an incredibly silly question.) As we walked down the emergency staircase to the first floor, I heard crying…..panting….people shouting, “hurry up before this building gets hit!” (Mind you, we were only on the seventh floor of a 20-story building).
As my good friend Kevin and I made our way through the ashes (it looked as if it had just snowed about 6 inches), we got to the South Street Seaport before we heard what sounded like a large thunder crash. Then one person uttered, “Someone said that the other building just fell.”
My journey home was a long one. I never felt that much fatigue in my life. I had walked from Lower Manhattan, over a bridge into Brooklyn and then to Queens, only taking a short cab ride and a subway about three stops to get closer to home. When I reached home, I kneeled at bed, buried my hands in my face and cried, mumbling prayers of thanks to God for getting me home at a time when I thought I would never see my apartment again.
I made my way to Community Church of Christ on the suggestion of a dear female friend (a woman I had only met about three months earlier) on the next Sunday. And although I had spent practically the entire week in fear…. rushing to the window at the first sound of anything that even remotely resembled a plane (and I live 6 minutes from John F. Kennedy Airport), when I reached the doors of church that Sunday, I read a sign that would change my life. It said, “Prepare for the Experience of Your Life”. And I did have the experience of my life. When Bishop Lester Williams spoke that day, I’m sure he was speaking to other people, but he was definitely speaking to me. He had confirmed through scripture that everything that I had been through was leading me to that moment.
The next week while many were walking through the halls of my relocated place of employment in New Jersey, while most were holding their heads down in despair and fear, I had a message of hope on my lips. And that following Sunday, after hearing a message that was every bit as incredible and thought-provoking as the first, I made a very lonely walk down the aisle that church. I joined the fellowship and gave my life to the Lord. The best decision of my life. In the five years since joining and following and believing God, I have grown to understand that although my previous plan was to join a church “later down the road”, God wanted me here. I realize the more that I spend time fellowshipping with my brothers and sisters in Christ that I needed them as much as they needed me.
Not being a particularly social being, I would have been content to sit at home and watch Fred Price or T.D. Jakes and send my money in via the (800) number. But I would learn another important lesson. One of the chief purposes of our lives is to fellowship with people who aren’t like us. Most of the people I had associated myself with prior to joining my church were folks who were like me — privileged, technology-driven, children of the 80s. How can we grow and develop our skills for sharing Christ if we only interact with people like ourselves? I’ve had my spirit tested several times as I worked alongside people that I didn’t understand. But in time, Christ gave me a spirit of compassion and understanding for people who’s situations were different from mine. And that doesn’t necessarily mean financially less secure. There are many people in life who just see things from a different angle. And once you’ve learned to see the good in folks that others would condemn as “bad people”, well, then you’ve begun to act like Christ.
I would never have imagined prior to the events of five years ago that I would be so bonded to a ministry that it would be the biggest determining factor if I ever moved — “am I close enough to make it to church?”
And so I mourn on this day with the rest of our country. And while I wanted to share my simple story, I don’t slight the horrible stories that must have unfolded a few blocks closer to the events. The worst images I have are of people walking down staircases as they hear rumblings from above and then…..
There’s a horrifying YouTube movie of a television shot of the World Trade Center synched up with the voice of a gentleman on a mobile phone with a 911 dispatcher up until the moment that building that he’s standing inside collapses. My story is light relative to those who aren’t here to tell their stories.
But as much as I spend time thinking of those moments, when I reflect on God’s hand in my life leading up to that point….. allowing me to meet Tricia on a chance train ride and get to know her months before I would join her church myself….. having a history of “running behind the clock”, only to have God bring me this close to the events and see destruction with my own eyes….. being in the vestibule with Roosevelt while most of the others on the seventh floor had chosen the stairs and to sit among the seven (there’s that number again) to see him “pray as if nobody was watching”….. everything was part of His design for my life.
The obvious question to me (and others who don’t believe) I anticipate some asking as, “Well, if God spared you, what makes the other 3,000 people who died so much worse that their lives weren’t?” I don’t have the answer to that question. Actually I don’t have the answer to many questions. Was it truly an attack whose plan was developed outside of these boarders…. or within? I have learned as time moved on that God will reveal truths in time. Faith requires that we move without seeing….but instead trust God as we move forward with a blindfold on our eyes….. and when he says, “walk left”, even though we use our toes and can’t feel the floor under our feet, we take a step anyhow and after a brief moment of anxiety, land safely on the step that was just a few inches below our toe. I don’t know why there are those that are made to suffer. However, I do know that Christ is real. And it’s unfortunate that it took an event this horrifying to get my attention. But even though the fear of the event has subsided in my spirit, my heart feels a sense of joy in reflecting on the direction that my life took afterwards. As my Bishop says, “he changed my feet so I can walk right….changed my mind so that I can think right….. changed my heart so that I can love right…”
Folks – if you take anything from my example, know that there are no coincidences. Those moments when we attribute events to things like, “I just happened to be here at the same time as….” and “It was lucky for me that I decided to drive because….” Know that these movements in your life are God. Despite what you think, He does love you. And he’s waiting on you to take steps towards Him. I’m glad that he gave me time to change and I pray that my life has been a blessing to others. I’m definitely a person who still has flaws like everyone else, but the scripture tells us in II Corinthians that man is renewed ‘day by day’. I pray that through my story that you’ll take steps to get to know God better by reading his word. He will make all the difference in your life if you put your trust in Him.
And so today as I watch the replays of the news from that day and drop my head in sorrow and shame, I’ll be able to pick it back up resting in the knowledge that while people think we’re on a collision course for destruction, Christ has things under control. And we can rest easy if we can truly say that we know him. The saying is indeed true. Know Jesus, Know Peace….No Jesus, No Peace.