Sept. 11 Spiritual Changes Still Being Played Out
- Friday, September 05, 2003
Two years after the deadliest attacks in American history, life for most Americans goes on largely as it did in the days before terrorism became a domestic concern.
But Jennifer Sands and Abdo Hashem are not most Americans. Day-to-day life for both of them took a radical turn after Sept. 11, 2001, not only because they lost close family members on that day, but because the day immediately forced what they now see as the most important choice of their lives: Will I turn to God for strength? Or will I turn away in anger?
At first, they gave opposite answers. Today, however, although they've never met, they speak the same new language and hold a similar set of new values. And both trace the changes to the day that forced a choice.
On Sept. 11, Sands began the day with the same prayer she said every day when her husband, Jim, left at 6 a.m. for the two-hour commute from Brick, N.J., to his job on the 103rd floor at the World Trade Center.
"Please, God, get him to work safely, and bring him home safely, too. He's everything in the world to me, and I love him so much. So please, Lord, watch over him."
Later that morning, a co-worker at a local pharmacy telephoned with the unthinkable news. The day became a blur. When Jim's tower collapsed, she did too. And as soon as she could think again, she pointed an angry finger at God.
"My anger was not toward the terrorists. It was completely focused on God," said Sands, a 38-year-old Roman Catholic who tells her story in "A Tempered Faith: Rediscovering Hope in the Ashes of Loss" (Olive Press, 2003). "Because I didn't pray to Osama bin Laden to not commit any evil acts.
"I had prayed to God, who had always answered my prayers. Did I not pray hard enough? Was I not specific enough? I was furious because I knew God could have stopped this."
Hashem, 36, of Newburyport, knows the feeling. A Lebanese Roman Catholic who grew up in Lawrence, Mass., Hashem prayed daily and went to church regularly until his father died 10 years ago. Then he stayed away from his Arabic-speaking Roman Catholic congregation for three years, asking himself all the while, "What's the point of worshipping God if he lets terrible things happen?"
But Hashem relented in his anger toward the divine, finding it "wasn't getting me anywhere" and didn't give him a sense of peace with regard to his father's death. So on Sept. 11, when he learned his brother Peter had been aboard American Airlines Flight 11, he chose not to shake his fist at the sky again.
"Am I going to be angry again, like when my father died?" he asked himself. "Or am I going to go to Jesus for strength? I chose the latter."
Almost immediately, Hashem says, his daily habits changed. His prayers became more personal, more conversational: "Instead of just saying an 'Our Father,' it was like, 'Let's talk about this. I know you have a plan for us, and I'd like to know what that plan is because I'm not sure what you want me to do.'" He began reading the Bible in order to hear God's voice without interpretation, he says. And he trusted anew that although Sept. 11 seemed senseless to him, there was a reason because "God has His own plans for us."
Sands, meanwhile, hid her anger from her devout kin, who she says would have marched her back into the fold. She instead vented it overseas via e-mail to a friend. Ethel, she says, patiently listened, empathized and quoted Scripture until Sands came to trust in what is now her favorite verse: "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for
welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11, RSV).
Hashem and Sands are far from typical insofar as their faith lives took a dramatic turn after Sept. 11, 2001. Most Americans continue to believe and practice as they did before the attacks, according to John Berthrong, dean of the Boston University School of Theology and author of "The Divine Deli: Religious Identity in the North American Cultural Mosaic" (Orbis, 2000).
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