Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Be Not Afraid

After four separate flights full of strangers and about fifty zillion packed subway rides I'll bet fifty thousand people breathed on me. I naturally came home with a cold and feel appropriately horrible. So my words may not sparkle as bright today.

I think I've got enough for two week's worth of wit and wisdom. Next week I'll talk about the fun stuff we did. Today I want to finish talking about the Islamic Activity Center. I'm sure you're tired of listening to me but it took me a while to figure it all out. I've changed my mind several times but eventually distilled all the things I saw and heard into what I keep going back to: What do the people who live and work in the neighborhood think?

We got to New York on Thursday. The cab driver delivering us to our hotel said she grew up in Queens and said she doesn't have any problem at all with the Islamic Activity Center. She called it a "church" but then at one point called it a "yeshiva" in what I figure was one of the all-time vocabulary bloopers since a yeshiva is a Jewish school. She got her point across, though and said everyone has a right to have a church. She sounded proud of the diversity of her city.

And this town is nothing if not diverse. Remember, the United Nations is housed in NYC. I heard so many different languages and was surprised by how much French I heard. This must be the year for them to come visit us. One time I needed to ask a question of the people standing in line for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and stopped to take stock of the people in line--who might speak English. When I finally chose a couple that looked the most like Beaven and myself they answered my question with a British accent. One restaurant highly recommended to us was the Amish Market and it was delicious. But on the buffet was more middle-eastern food like tabouli, dolmas and hummus with not an apple pie in sight.

There was an official memorial tribute on the 11th but Elizabeth and I got to walking around Central Park eating hot dogs and listening to a few street musicians and you know how time slips away so we missed that. But I got a better deal that afternoon. Instead of a reverent remembrance service I went to a street demonstration.

Our hotel was in Tribeca which is only two blocks from Ground Zero and the Financial District. I left Elizabeth at the hotel to take a nap and slipped around the corner to witness the unofficial protest of the mosque. Matter of fact, I got right in the dead center of it and took a 360 degree video. Just one of the little services I offer my devoted followers.



It briefly occurred to me that I might end up in danger if the crowd got violent but I didn't really feel in danger. The police had closed the entire block to traffic then stood on the perimeter to make sure we minded our manners. Everybody packed together almost shoulder to shoulder. There didn't seem to be any organization to where people stood. Some were pairs of interviewers and interviewees. There was a large clump of "anti-mosque" people waving flags and yelling into a megaphone. That was about the most organized group. Then there were smaller and unorganized groups of four or five people who were defending the mosque.

As I was walking back to the hotel I fell in step with one couple who weren't saying anything. The woman was silently holding up a green piece of paper on which she had printed one word in large letters,"Tolerance." I had a strong desire to give her a hug and we had a short conversation while we walked, neither of us able to understand the anger or intensity.

The last day of our visit we took a walking tour of the WTC led by a couple who are part of a group of WTC volunteers who found a void of first-person stories to the general public. This also helps them in their grieving process.

Paul McFadden is a retired fire fighter. He lost 46 friends. His wife, Denise, lost 47; Paul's friends and one of her students. She spoke of how teachers remember certain kids and she had always worried about this young man. She talked about how the firefighting community is one big family. When she married Paul 40 years ago she married into the fire fighting family.

Paul is a fit-looking guy who developed a lung disorder and couldn't handle the smoke so he had to retire early. He was playing golf that day and reminded us how perfect the weather was. They called him off the golf course and when he got home his wife met him at the door with his gear. He left immediately and spent the next couple of days looking for people to rescue. He said only four people were pulled out of the rubble alive. Of the 347 firefighters who died that day he personally knew 46. One of his friends was standing in the lobby of one of the towers and as it fell the force of the wind as the tower fell "like an accordion" blew him out of the building and across the street. He lived but the man standing next to him was crushed.

Paul never used the word "died" but "murdered."

After a few days his lungs weren't able to handle the smoke and he was frustrated at not being able to help without going to the pile. When he went to the first funeral he noticed how few firefighters were there and realized they were all either dead or working on the pile. So he decided that would be his job--putting on his uniform and going to funerals. It took a year and a half to do them all. Most of the men had two funerals; one regular one with a wake and funeral mass and then, if they were lucky enough to find a body part, another wake and funeral to bury the body part. But many people never left a trace. Paul said most people were either pulverized or vaporized.

His wife talked of September 11th as the "the day it rained humanity," because so many people jumped out of the building to escape the fire. And some of those fell on people on the ground running from the building, causing a second death.

Numbers: of the 2,974 people who died, only 177 whole bodies were recovered. Half a million --500,000--people worked on the recovery; mostly faith-based or Red Cross agencies. Volunteer work ranged from food service for the recovery workers to sifting debris for DNA identification. The recovery effort went on for over eight months. Everything from the debris was sifted three times by three different groups in an effort to recover DNA or body parts, however small. We saw one of the buildings whose side was sheared off by the collapse of the towers. It is still being slowly "de-constructed", taken apart bit by bit because it's still contaminated with human remains. But another building damaged in the collapse was the American Express building and we stood in its pristine lobby for part of our tour, a testimony to renewal.

Six months later in the spring one of the pastors at St Paul Chapel found a bird's nest that incorporated bits of paper and other debris from the towers into building the nest.

Paul and Denise spoke reverently of the deaths but not angrily or fearfully. They speak of the site as a cemetery. I didn't ask them their opinion on the Islamic Center. I probably should have but the mood of our tour didn't invite politics.

A few of you asked me why I thought this had blown up to an issue. And the only word I can come up with is "fear." I decided it all boiled down to our fears.

Then, almost like God had decided on a "theme weekend" for me, the entire Sunday worship at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian was on just that topic. I love worshiping in their sanctuary. It's old and huge with deep, dark wood and a rich sound that just bathes you in awe. I'll bet there were 500 people in worship that day. The organ has massive gold pipes across the back of the Chancel. Before a note is played you know you're going to hear great sounds. And I wasn't disappointed.

The sermon was on "Fear" and it was a standard three point sermon, touching on personal fears, national fears and fear of God. I could break it all down for you since I took impeccable notes but I know you didn't come here today for that. However, the ending anthem was magnificent and I want to share it with you. Be not afraid.


Of course, Elizabeth was mortified that I was taking pictures during worship. But I'm very careful and discrete. I got some dandy snaps in the Sistine Chapel and of the David under conditions forbidding photography. I keep the flash off and hold my camera in a way that no one knows I'm taking pictures. Elizabeth stresses out about a lot of rules. She's really big on rules. I raised her right.

Finally, I figured the neighborhood newspaper, the Tribeca Trib, made the most sense, after all, it's their neighborhood. And the newspaper was in favor of the center. One reader opposed the center but mostly on the grounds that he didn't want "some guy in the backwoods of American who's against this thing, packing a moving van full of fertilizer....Being that I live next door, I'm a little nervous about what might happen."

My overwhelming impression of the people who live in New York is that they are tough people, brave people and inclusive people. And they are proud of their resiliency. Yes, September 11, 2001 was terrible. But they survived and have moved on.

I also found out there's been Muslims praying on the site of the proposed building for over a year now. The company who occupied the building on September 11th abandoned it and it's sat vacant until the ground floor was quietly converted to a prayer space in July, 2009. The local Community Board voted twice to approve the building application. Twice. So I'm not sure why there's a controversy if it's been voted on already. The same article went on to say that the people who opposed the project with flag waving and emotional speeches were all from out of town.

I am now officially tired of talking about it. Tune in next week for stories of Broadway shows and the Bataan Death March from Central Park to Times Square. And our discovery of a new technique we call the "Clif Notes of Museum Visiting."

Next week: Exploring New York City and what happens when two accountants vacation together.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK , since you are tired of talking about the Ground Zero issue and the proposed Mosque, how about I observe that isn't it great that we can raise our kids to abide by the rules, then when they are all grown up and heeding our advice, we can break the rules!! Love it. Thanks, Jane