Walt Tennyson: The work of 9/11

September 8, 2011 in Guest Blog by Walt Tennyson

On September 11, 2001, I was pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. After climbing the narrow ladder of our church bell tower to confirm the smoke plume we were seeing on TV, I began calling members of our community who lived and worked downtown. One elder at my church had called in sick and was not in his World Trade Center office. A music teacher who lived just a few blocks from Tower 2 awakened when the window behind her bed exploded. She snatched her wallet and keys and fled uptown in thrown-on clothes. A member whose company was based in one of the adjacent office buildings had sent two co-workers up to a meeting on the 93rd floor. He decided not to attend. After the plane hit, his friends reported by cell phone that they could not leave due to the fire below and were trying to make their way to the roof. He watched and waited outside as bodies began hurtling toward the plaza in front of him.

From the beginning, the horror of 9/11 has called people to the work of 9/11. Crews risked their lives prying away jagged beams of steel to search for survivors. Soldiers left families and jobs and went off to fight. The public at large endured new inconveniences at airports and public events but is mostly tasked with supporting the teetering economy.

Ten years into this response is a good time to ask how the work of 9/11 is going. There have been no repeat attacks here on a large scale, and for that we may assume some good has come from arrests, military action, increased security and better intelligence. That work is dangerous and those who do it are rightly honored. That work is also tremendously costly in terms of human lives and tax dollars. As the years tick by, and as terrorist leaders are caught or killed–and replaced–we grieve with the poet of Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

At Rhodes College, we are inviting Memphis to join a national, interfaith movement for a different kind of 9/11 work. Nearly three hundred college campuses are mobilizing citizens to play a part in the White House Interfaith Service Challenge. The goal of the Challenge is to bring people together across lines of religious difference and hostility as they improve their communities through service.

When the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships invited our campus to take part, cable news networks were reporting public anger over a proposed Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, opposition to building a new mosque in Murfreesboro and the threat of a Christian minister in Florida to burn a Q’uran. These incidents are fault lines that point to deep fissures of assumptions about “the other” race, religion or country.

It is no secret that Memphis faces challenges with public school funding, gun violence and poverty. Among our many strengths–though not as celebrated as our food, music and transportation–is the quality of relationships between our religious communities. Just as Rosa Parks did not refuse to sit in the back of the bus by herself, the invitation by Heartsong Church to welcome the Memphis Islamic Center to worship in their building did not happen in isolation.

I have lived in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, Boston, Nashville and New York before moving here, and I have not witnessed the depth and breadth of interfaith relations that we have in Memphis. The Muslim community in particular walks the walk of hospitality to strangers by regularly inviting community leaders, students and members of Christian churches and other religions to experience Islam and celebrate the wisdom each tradition brings to our cultural fabric. Calvary Episcopal Church’s Lenten preaching series, Hope Presbyterian’s billboards that challenge us to ask if corporate America “is more diverse than your church,” Temple Israel’s presence in the “Tear Down the Walls” movement are all evidence that we are in a position of leading, not following, the nation in interfaith relations.

How can you get involved in the work of 9/11? Rhodes is partnering with the City of Memphis on OneMemphis, which brings together citizens, not-for-profit institutions and government to make progress on critical issues facing our city. We are working to make a difference in eliminating blight through Cleaning and Greening, supporting at-risk young people through Youth Empowerment, and respecting the wisdom of our seniors through Elderly Services. You or your congregation can get involved at OneMemphis.org.


Walt Tennyson is the Chaplain at Rhodes College.

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