The terrorists who struck U.S. soil on September 1 divided our lives into the “before” and “after.” The days that followed were full of terrifying images, incredible human loss, and stunning stories of courage. And as those images, losses, and stories mount, an important irony has revealed itself.
For decades Americans have bemoaned our loss of leadership. Our current leaders don’t measure up to previous generations. They don’t have the competencies we need. They don’t have the vision or the courage we need. So goes the litany.
Regrettably, there is some truth in those statements. Leadership is always in short supply. People in positions of authority often are ill-prepared, self-serving, or decidedly lacking in vision and integrity. But in the rubble and chaos of the fallen World Trade Center and the wounded Pentagon, powerful leadership suddenly erupted in American.
As I write this column, we have begun to hear amazing stories of spontaneous goodness erupting. Workers in collapsing buildings lead colleagues down stairways full of smoke, water, darkness, and terror. Colleagues refuse to leave others stranded in flame and smoke—often sacrificing their own lives. Police and firefighters going against the flow of panic bravely lay down their lives so that others might live. Thousands of people acting in mercy mobilize emergency resources to care for those who are suddenly in great need. Grieving friends and families bravely face the loss of loved ones and pull themselves together to survive. In small and large ways, locally and internationally, people are leading each other to refuge and resolve in this time “after.”
Remembering God’s Presence
Religious leadership has been vividly present as well. One of the most dramatic images we have is of Fr. Mychal F. Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain who died as he knelt beside a fallen firefighter, his bare head bowed in prayer, administering the Last Rites.
Other religious leaders continue to make a difference in many ways. They have prayed, built temporary human structures of comfort around the grieving, raised money, and counseled the anxious. They also have anchored national efforts to deal with fear and anger and guided us in the search for meaning.
On the Sunday after the disaster, and only a few miles from the Pentagon, the Rev. Pierce Klemmt, rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, preached a powerful and poetic sermon.* He proclaimed that God is everywhere in New York and Washington these days, fully present in each instance of suffering and in each heroic response. Moreover, he said that the church we knew before the airlines crashed is dead, and that a new one that is less satisfied with the easy life of “before” must now rise to a new life of service and leadership in the world “after.”
We will never know how many such sermons and prayers gave people an initial place to stand as the events of that first week unfolded. In innumerable prayer and memorial services, and in even more numerous acts of pastoral care and communal mobilization, our congregations led people through the experience of God’s absence and into the possibility of God’s closer presence. For a moment, the special kind of leadership that congregations and faith communities provide was stunningly visible and relevant.
Congregations Must Lead
There are enormous implications for our congregations during this terrible time of trial. Those of us who belong to and lead congregations are given opportunities to see anew how desperately the world needs the resources and leadership that we can provide. We see that we do have a role—shaped by the realities of both “before” and “after”—that no one else can play. We see how much the world needs us to play that role and how important it is to build strong, sustaining communities of faith that, like the fire companies of New York, are ready when the bell tolls.
Further, it is clear that in the weeks ahead we must lead. We must be on the front line of the battle between hatred and love, revenge and God’s justice, despair and hope. In this time “after” we must be the ones who oppose the demonizing of others and build new relationships between faiths that are mistrusting, fearful, and ignorant of each other.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the new Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.