This past weekend America paused to once again remember that other day that will live in infamy, September 11, 2001. This year I had the honor of being the keynote speaker for a memorial and tribute to First Responders held in the quintessential middle-America town of Harrison, Ohio, a little west of Cincinnati.
The invitation came from a long-time pastor friend, Mark Garrett, of the Legacy Christian Church, who is also a fire company chaplain. After preaching two morning services for his congregation, I joined Mark for the evening ceremony at a nearby high school community auditorium. The mayor, fire and police chiefs, and many local pastors led a capacity crowd in recalling the sacrifices of so many on that tragic day. We also said thanks to the many men and women present in the audience that wear the uniform and bear the badge, ready and able to assist in every emergency, even when we face our greatest tests.
In my keynote address, I talked about how my father’s Jewish faith taught me that remembering is far more than a mental exercise. It is a sacred form of communion and communication. The Bible tells us that God remembers us and that we are to remember Him and one another. Then I told the story of how I experienced those two things on 9/11.
On that day, prayer, and love, and help were all blended into one, as I sought for and asked God to protect my family—my daughter was in D.C., on a college internship, and staying in our facility which, we all believed at the time, was in the flight path of the third hijacked plane that eventually went down in Pennsylvania.
When the first victim’s name was announced, memory turned into grief for me. Barbara Olson, whom I had just gotten to know, was a brilliant and incisive conservative commentator, lawyer, and author. She was married to Ted Olson, the then U.S. Solicitor General, the highest-ranking civil attorney in the federal government. Barbara was aboard American Flight 77 that one of the hijackers barreled into the Pentagon. She had called Ted twice from the plane, and although he was at his desk inside the Department of Justice, the highest law-enforcement agency in the country, he was powerless to help her.
I wanted to remember Barbara and all the others that perished that day, as well as those so terribly injured and traumatized. So, that Friday, I led a small group of clergy on a prayer procession to the site of the attack. As we processed—Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, and Protestant, each in our respective clerical garb, we remembered and prayed. As we began a descent down a grassy knoll, people seemed to come out from everywhere. They were tourists, government workers, military personnel, and even a gaggle of nuns in white habits. We had done no advertising, so, it was amazing how this human parade formed to become a great train of prayerful remembrance.
At one point we knelt and said the Lord’s Prayer. In Harrison, I asked the audience to recite it with me, as an act of prayerful remembrance. Just as it was echoed throughout the field that led to the still smoking cavity made by the plane in the Pentagon’s south wall 15 years ago, it did the same in that high school auditorium. Back in 2001, we finished our sacred task by scattering yellow roses for the dead on the same lawn where parking lamps, sheared off by the underbelly of the aircraft, laid on the ground like so many toothpicks.
Later, I would learn of a journalist who had been on duty that day, but felt compelled to join our parade procession. He later wrote that he had lost his faith twenty years before and lived a non-religious adult life. Still, he felt compelled to kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer, announcing that the faith he lost as a young man was reclaimed that day. I offered that story to the folks in Harrison as a sign of hope, that out of the ashes of despair, faith springs alive.
At the conclusion of the ceremony in Harrison, a brightly smiling woman named Krystan Goodrow, approached me and said, “Tonight was the second time I recited the Lord’s Prayer with you. I was there that day you and the other clergy came and led the procession. I wan on my break as a Navy nurse helping with recovery.”
We hugged, shed tears—and remembered.