It has been 20 years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Though this event changed the economic, political and religious landscape of America in the past 20 years, it was not the first national tragedy. Since then, there have been other tragedies that have had a lasting impact.
I was serving as a pastor and a professor in Oregon when the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded. My older son was 2 years old. Like most people in America and throughout the world, I remember what I was doing and preparing to do that morning. I also remember how people came together to mourn, to pray and to seek answers. The university I taught for did not cancel classes that morning, but professors were urged to allow students to talk, to reflect, to encourage one another and even to pray.
After my class that morning, I drove over to my office in a mid-sized church in a suburb of Portland. I was surprised to see people already gathering in the parking lot. Most of those who gathered were not members or attenders of my church. Rather, they pulled into the parking lot and approached me as I pulled in to ask if they could come inside and pray. That afternoon and into the early evening, I kept the doors open and stayed in the church building as a steady stream of people stopped and came in. Some knelt at altars, others sat in our seats and still others just sat in their cars out in the parking lot. There were tears and prayers throughout the day.
I discovered from colleagues that this phenomenon happened throughout the country at a variety of churches, school chapels and other places of worship. People were drawn toward prayer during this crippling national crisis.
I was comforted that houses of worship could be places of lament, prayer and comfort. Within a month or two, some of that fervor died down. However, during the earliest days of the attack, for a brief time, churches and other houses of worship became places of true sanctuary. Not every national crisis has the overall impact of 9/11.
However, there are things that people of faith can do to become a helpful presence during times of fear, grief and loss.
First, as noted above, people of faith can lead with prayer. Reminding those who are afraid and hurting of the need to pause and regroup through prayer can begin to introduce a sense of calm in an otherwise chaotic time. People of faith believe that prayer can be effective. We also believe that prayer can motivate us toward meaningful actions.
Second, people of faith can listen. In counseling, we learn a technique called “active listening.” This occurs when the listener makes eye contact, refuses to interrupt and allows the speaker to fully process his or her thoughts verbally. Active listening involves engaging our empathy by seeking to “enter into” the feelings of another while refraining from quick answers. This kind of listening can cause people to feel truly heard and not alone during times of fear and grief.
Third, people of faith can encourage a sense of community. No one likes to suffer alone. Creating opportunities to gather together for comfort points people beyond their individual crises. Also, networking together can multiply the effectiveness of any action, whether it be giving resources or joining together in a helpful project. The old saying rings especially true in times of national disaster: “All of us are stronger than just one of us.”
Finally, consistent interaction and follow-up can allow people of faith to walk others through the entire process of grief and loss. While it is vitally important to be there during the initial stages of a national or regional crisis, it is also equally crucial to find ways to connect throughout the process of grief. During the initial stages of a crisis, people tend to do things that are out of the ordinary (like gather at a church that is not your own to pray).
However, as time goes on and some version of “normal” resumes, the need to process and adjust remains. It is here where people of faith can establish long-term relationships and help point people toward helpful long-term solutions.
To hear a conversation about how to cope with national tragedy, tune in Saturday, Sept. 11, at 5 p.m., for my podcast, "Coping with National Tragedy," at https://fb.me/e/43EPeeoPv.