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Interfaith Voices: Spiritual lessons from 9/11 memories

Interfaith Voices: Spiritual lessons from 9/11 memories

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Twenty years ago today, Janet Horton, a military chaplain and Christian Scientist, was in the Pentagon when a fireball blasted through the office she had just left. Cheryl McGuinness learned that the airliner her husband co-piloted had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Genelle Guzman-McMillan, then a single mother of two small children, was working on its 64th floor.

How were these women’s lives shaped by this “Day of Terror?”

Although ordered to evacuate, Horton remained in the Pentagon to help move, tend to, and pray for the victims, some literally on fire (125 of her colleagues died). Whenever she relives the experience, she tearfully relates her amazement, not of the terror, but of God’s loving, healing presence that helped so many.

McGuinness felt at first forsaken by God when her husband died. In public addresses she described the ordeal as well as the gradual saving grace she felt, which eventually led her to counsel other victims. “At first, I had to trust God just to breathe, just to survive one more day.” Faith was the key to her recovery, and she has since helped many others rebuild their lives through prayer.

For 27 hours, Guzman-McMillan was buried in that massive tomb of smoke and dust with only a pocket of air. Prior to that day she’d been disenchanted with religion, but she attributed her rescue, rapid recovery, and subsequent religious devotion to prayer, speaking directly to God.

The attacks on 9/11 drastically changed their lives and seemed to alter the collective psyche of our nation. Although other events may be more deadly (the current pandemic, for example), 9/11 was a visual nightmare, a mesmerizing, cinematic display of horror. Our biggest cities, our seats of government and defense, appeared vulnerable to destruction by a handful of terrorists. It generated some of the worst (xenophobia, racism) and the best (the heroism of first-responders, the compassion of people dedicated to peace) in our character, and it fostered the impetus for the Interfaith Movement that created, among other things, this column.

Like Janet Horton, I’m a student of Christian Science. My faith in God as the source of all being, and of the spirituality that animates all religious practice, informs my life’s walk, mostly through a daily discipline of prayer and biblical study. As I reflect on 9/11, I wonder how a near-constant focus on terror 20 years ago affected policy and warfare, as well as our personal lives. What can the experiences of these three women teach us?

They faced existential decisions, choices. It brings to mind a passage from Deuteronomy: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” The founder of our religion, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote, “Your decisions will master you, whichever direction they take.”

In the face of threat or loss, we can choose to follow the dark path of fear that leads to hopelessness, or we can focus on the life-giving possibilities of renewal and transformation. We can lift our thoughts above terror and do good, as these brave women did. We can learn from experience and from increasing our spiritual understanding of eternal truths much bigger than ourselves. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” That’s a tall order! But St. Paul assures us we’re not in this alone: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

John Addiego works with the committee on publications for the Corvallis branch church of Christ, Scientist. He is a writer and retired teacher.


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