After 16 years, I still keep a poster on the wall of my office advertising the National Book Festival, which my husband and I attended on September 8, 2001. All kinds of booths and entertainment venues filled the National Mall in Washington, DC. The neighboring public buildings hosted educational and informational presentations. Authors signed their books in the halls of the Library of Congress. It was a beautiful day—the last one I remember before our lives changed forever three days later. The lesson of thankfulness for beautiful days of innocence.
We moved to DC between Christmas and New Year’s 2001 for a temporary adventure—for a year or so. My husband was a science and technology fellow, advising a senator and we lived in a high-rise apartment on the DC side of the Potomac River. Like you, we will never forget where we were on September 11, 2001 — forever after known as 9-11. That morning, as soon as the news came on our TV, Phil hurriedly left for the Russell Senate Office Building at the Capitol, a short subway ride away.
The loud, loud noise
The phone lines were jammed when I tried to call our children in Texas and Florida. I sat down at my computer in the dining nook of our apartment and sent emails to them that they would get eventually. Then I heard a loud, loud noise! I looked out the dining room window and saw billows of smoke across the Potomac. I quickly ran across the living room to our fifth-floor balcony to get a better view. The moment I came back into the apartment the TV newscaster reported: “A plane has just hit the Pentagon.”
I ran out to the balcony again and looked the other direction to see if the Capitol was still here! My first prayer was “O, dear God! What a tragedy!” My mind groped to absorb and understand what was happening. From deep within rose a different prayer: “Praise, you Jesus!” I began saying this over and over and found an unexpected calm in my soul. The lesson of instinctively turning to God to calm my racing mind, my raging heart, my troubled soul.
Praise him in all circumstances
My cries of helplessness, which somehow came out as cries of praise, became an invitation to God to encompass the tragedy. Praise created the spiritual environment for me to cope with my human stress and brought to me God’s grace to surrender all that was happening. I wasn’t praising him for the situation, but with confidence that he was working in the situation. The lesson of praising him in all circumstances.
As a journalist, I automatically grabbed my camera to record this historic event. That unexpected gift of God’s peace remained inside me as I went down the elevator, two blocks to the dock and took some incredible photos.
Lesson of generosity
That peace remained as I talked with two stranded motorists. Each of them had pulled their cars into the dockside parking to wait out the emergency traffic pattern that was forcing them in the opposite direction of their destinations. I invited them to wait in our apartment. That’s how peaceful I felt deep inside, even with the tragic events worsening wherever I turned. The lesson of generosity in a common disaster.
The senators sequestered somewhere underground and the Senate offices closed, my husband returned home from the Capitol. We settled in to watch TV with the two visitors. The calm in my soul remained even as we watched the planes hit the towers over and over.
When the towers fell I got up off the couch and announced: “I need to be in church. If you will excuse me, I’m going to 12:15 mass!” One of the stranded motorists, a woman who worked at the Disney Store at the now shutdown Reagan National Airport said, “Do you think they will take Baptist prayers?”
Run to Jesus
I said, “Of course! Come on – it’s a short walk.” So we left my husband and the man from out of town who never made it to his appointment at the Pentagon. The lesson of running to Jesus when the world crumbles – and inviting others along!
St. Dominic’s, on the edge of downtown DC, was packed. Instead of the usual dozen or so business people scattered throughout the large church, a solid mass of worshipers filled the pews. Most of them were in shock and many in tears. I just kept praying, “Praise you, Jesus!” under my breath, as the Eucharist consoled me.
Lesson of praise
Praising God carried me away from my focus on the circumstances, on what I wanted and how I felt, and into the awareness of God presence. If we want the Lord to help us, to comfort us, to guide us, we must come into the place where he is by praising him. We must bring all we are, all we do, all we need to him. The lesson of the power of praise to bring us into his presence.
What do you remember about 9-11?
(© 2012 revised 2017 by Nancy Ward)