“Had I come out from the school five seconds earlier,” said my ten-year old son C.J.* when I finally found him, “I would have been in trouble.” He was covered in that white dust, later called “dust of death.” His hair now coated in specks, his black backpack, now grey. When the second Trade tower collapsed, firemen had pushed the children inside and shut the school doors, protecting them from getting burned by the smoke filled with fire. The “fireball”, mixed with jet fuel, incinerated thousands in a single second, and sent a domino of vehicles exploding north. C.J. and his friends ran from one designated store to another, guided by his teachers who told them to close their eyes. He almost ran into a tree, he said. It was a red maple tree that he had helped to plant in front of the school five years ago. The next morning, when we returned briefly to get essential items from our loft (now “ground zero”), we walked by the tree, now covered in soot, each leaf sagging, having been freshly torched and coated by the clay like dust.
I had sat with C.J. only a month before, in the summer night in front of elementary school PS 234, sharing a verse from Jeremiah 29. We were looking at that red maple tree, with the lights of the World Trade Center windows glowing in the evening haze. “Jeremiah told us to build houses and settle down, and plant trees in Babylon,” I said. “Do you think New York City is like Babylon or Jerusalem?”
It was a lead-in question. The answer would be yes, for both. The Israelites were exiled from their identity as God’s people having forsaken God. Neither the desolate Jerusalem nor the exilic land of Babylon would hold any promise for them. The false prophets are speaking words of encouragement that it would be a short exile. But God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field in Jerusalem, as a step of faith and as a seed of restoration. And God spoke through Jeremiah that this would be a long battle in the foreign land of Babylon. So the battle would be long, even generational, in New York City as well. “You helping to plant a tree, and being here with Daddy, living in New York City,” I said, “is being faithful in a foreign land… I suspect we have it much better than those Israelites though.”
I did not realize that my question to my son, would be a lead-in question for me as well. Yes, New York City is like Babylon and Jerusalem at the same time, especially now. I survey the damage done to our “backyard.” Only three blocks away, and the stadium lights set up to recover the bodies cast hallowing white lights upon the remaining rubble. Smoke continues to rise, like incense, from the remains of the fallen towers. Witnessing the devastation day by day, I have somehow crossed the chasm of history, and I am lead back to a scene of fallen Jerusalem that Jeremiah must have witnessed. But at the same time, in this exilic land called New York, how do we remain faithful even among the rubble? Reading the New York Times on one hand, and reading the Bible in the subway one day, I kept on noting the voice of despair of the prophets of Babylon echoed in the very headlines I was reading.
“Until Tuesday, I was part of a ridiculously lucky generation.” wrote a fellow parent at PS 234, artist Laurie Fendrich, “For me, war was what I knew about from movies, reading, and the distant (before my birth) loss to my mother of her brother in World War II. Now, like all Americans, I know something directly about war. I know it as a civilian, having been attacked here, in my own country, my own city, my own neighborhood.”
“After Tuesday, “she continues, “I can no longer speak as a woman, or an artist, or a New Yorker. Speaking in those ways - ‘speaking personally’ - will no longer do. I have to learn how to speak as a citizen.”
Author’s note: C.J. now prefers to be called Clayton. Edited versions of this essay originally appeared in Image Journal, as well as in Refractions: a journey of art, faith and culture. This essay also was selected for Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image (edited by Gregory Wolfe).