Ministry on 9-11: a 20th anniversary reflection

9/10/2021

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was serving as Command Chaplain (senior pastor) at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif. In some ways it was light years removed from the personal carnage and immediate aftermath of that day.

One United Methodist chaplain, a close friend, was at the Pentagon that morning and ministered in crisis mode to the wounded and the dazed. Another close friend was senior chaplain on the USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean heading home after a long deployment. He recalled the ship’s captain coming on the 1MC (intercom) and telling the crew hours after the attack that the ship was reversing course and would head toward the likely source of the attack, in Afghanistan, to arrange airstrike meetings of the perpetrators with justice. Normally, word that a deployment was being extended would elicit a mass groan from a weary crew. That day the reaction was the opposite. Within days the “Big E” offered an initial foreign policy lesson to Al Qaeda.
 
I
have no such dramatic story, but the ministry conducted at NPS offers a glimpse of the larger spiritual and tangible reaction of military chaplains who are incarnate in the system that exists to defend and protect the nation.  The ministry at NPS was expressed in four dimensions.

I was asleep when the phone rang around 0645. I had just started leave to burn some ‘use or lose’ vacation days. It was our daughter Rachel, a student in Kentucky, asking if we had seen what was happening. We turned on the tv, saw what was happening, and I knew immediately that leave no longer was in the picture. I dressed and walked to my office at Hermann Hall, the headquarters building for the school.  NPS is a premier graduate level institution run by the Department of the Navy for master and doctoral level degrees in disciplines relevant to military service. Engineering, business, and national security are three of the several areas of specialty for the 1,000+ students from all branches of the military plus over 30 allied nations. This included one of the largest contingents of officers from Islamic allied nations who, with their families, were assigned for 1-2 years to complete the rigorous course of study.

The first dimension of ministry was personal. Among the 250+ worshippers in the Protestant program was a young Marine Corps enlisted man, who received word from family later that morning that his two sisters, who both worked in the Towers, likely were killed in the attack. The family wanted him home in New Jersey, but all flights were grounded and it was four days to the next payday. The young Marine contacted me. Within in the hour the Protestant and Catholic chapel funds contributed (illegally, so sue me) to help with his finances. That, plus donations from his fellow Marines in the Defense Language Institute…where he was studying Arabic…provided him with enough money to fund a trip to the moon. A Marine buddy was selected, from numerous volunteers, to drive with him to ensure no stop on the road would be needed. In 72 hours he was with his family, grieving together their loss. Follow-on pastoral conversations on his return provided additional care. The wife of another student lost a brother in the Pentagon, and pastoral care also was offered to the couple, both in dealing with the emotions of the moment and in a search for perspective after their return from the memorial service.

The second dimension was theological. Chaplains are the resident theologians at whatever command they serve. Crises and trauma often lead to a hunger for response, “Is there any word from the Lord?” on what has happened. In prayers offered in public events held in the city and at the school, in a sermon preached to a packed house exceeding 300 on the Sunday following the event, and in a meditation offered at a campus-wide memorial service, questions of God amid evil, justice versus vengeance, and related themes were addressed. The questions already were being asked, and no “the” answer was promised, but the legitimate and gracious role of reflecting on events and next steps through a theological lens was expressed. Such a ministry is perfectly possible, even amid the profound religious and cultural diversity of the multinational student body.

The third dimension was communal. Every member of my congregation knew their professional and personal lives would change dramatically in response to 9-11. Many of those in that congregation would be somewhere in Southwest Asia within the next 36 months, several in physical combat. The initial steps in the emotional unpacking of implications, in shared support, in creating a setting where one safely could express feelings and concerns among others who shared similar challenges, all were encouraged and affirmed at all chapel events. Coffee and doughnuts discussions after worship expanded in numbers and length. The chapel communities at the school already served as first responders to volunteerism in response to community needs outside the gates of the school. When an earthquake killed thousands in Turkey in 1999, including family members of some NPS Turkish students, the first financial resource to help fund the return of those students on emergency leave came from the combined Catholic-Protestant chapel funds. Vibrant chapel ministries are positioned to make that kind of difference, and the support of senior leadership at the school enabled such programs to flourish, without pressuring any student or staff to participate except as conscience or personal desire might lead. Numerous other students and staff not part of the chapel community also provided financial and personal assistance, gratefully received. As security at the gate tightened, wife Christy would prepare fresh chocolate chip cookies to share with the guards standing the night watch, one of numerous examples of community care for those whose responsibilities had become more rigorous. When we visited NPS several years after my retirement from the Navy in 2005, one of the guards vaguely recalled me but clearly remembered Christy…and the warm chocolate chip cookies.
           
The fourth dimension was one of reconciliation. News of the attack traveled swiftly among the students. A doctoral student in engineering from Egypt, whose first name was Osama, came to me, deeply upset. We previously had worked together to create a Muslim prayer space for students to use while on campus, a space complete with the capability to perform ablutions as part of keeping Salat. Osama was appalled at what had happened and wanted me to know that Islam did not condone the terror inflicted in its name. We were agreed.  With others, we planned a campus-wide memorial service, with representatives from campus military leadership, Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities. On the day of the event, as attendees walked the long sidewalk leading to the campus auditorium, officers from the various Muslim nations represented among the student body formed a guard of honor on either side of the walkway, a quiet statement of solidarity. Name-calling, faith-baiting and ugly stereotypes found no place on campus, thanks to the efforts and collaborative spirit of many, including the religious community.
           
The nation, and NPS, have undergone profound change since 2001. What has not changed are the spiritual and emotional needs, and strengths, of the men and women who serve, the challenges faced by their families, and the role of faith in offering perspective and hope amid trauma and human ugliness.