Twenty years ago today I was in a training session across the country from my new wife and the life I had just begun as a postdoctoral psychology provider in Kansas. The small group I was with had bonded somewhat over the previous day and a half we spent together, but we were still strangers, from all over the country, meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.
As we were beginning the morning program, one of the training administrators entered our room, whispered to the trainer, and then explained an emergency in New York City was causing them to suspend our morning session. We were asked to go back to our rooms and check in with family, and that they would be in touch with us through our hotel room telephones (cell phones were rare at the time). They were calm and gentle and really helped us avoid panic, but the lobby was filled with loud, anxious people watching a television in one corner. On it I could see live helicopter footage of a tower in New York, with several upper floors billowing smoke. I didn’t take the elevator, I took the stairs to my room.
Immediately upon turning the television to the same news station in my room, I watched live as the second plane crashed into the twin of the first tower hit. I was crying as I used my long distance calling card to try to reach Anne. She answered, and then we paused. Neither knew what to say after “Are you okay? Yes, I’m safe. Are you?” We checked with the rest of our families, then called each other back and continued following the news, anxiety rising as we heard of more reports, of the flight that crashed close to the Pentagon, as we heard all air traffic shut down, as we heard the nation went into full lockdown mode, with car rental agencies also closing. Was this attack going to be nationwide? Were things happening in Kansas? In Oklahoma? In South Carolina where I was staying? We knew nothing. Only that every single person in the US was currently afraid for their safety and reeling from what was happening in our land.
I was trapped, more than a thousand miles away from Anne, from my dogs, from anything familiar. And I was worried about her safety with no way to help. I was in this place we call America but feeling utterly alone and afraid. I did not sleep that night, and I’m pretty sure I left the television on for the rest of my time in that room. The next morning I taxied to a rental car agency far away from the airport, and successfully bribed an agent to let me take a car that was not supposed to go across state lines. I have never done anything like that in my life, before or since. At the time, though, I knew there was no other way to get home immediately, and the government was giving no timeline for reopening air travel.
The drive from Charleston to Lawrence, Kansas is, I’m sure, beautiful almost year round, but I remember nothing of the roads or landscape or topography. I really only remember one thing: the billboards, what they said and how the messages changed as I drove. Billboards can apparently be changed very quickly. Less than two days after the terrorist attacks there were billboards up in South Carolina, with messages alongside the national flag like “United We Stand” and “We Will Not Break.” I decided then that I would pass the time driving by trying to see every pro-unity message I found. When I stopped at gas stations and called Anne to give her updates, I would talk about the billboards and how I was taking care of myself to stay awake. I gave myself a two-hour nap in a truck parking lot but did not want to stop and lay down in a bed until I was home with Anne.
My mind during this time was reeling, from what I heard on the radio and from what I realized I didn’t really ever know. How is it that anyone could hijack planes and use them in this way? And was this truly a Muslim act? More and more information was coming out in the news about who the suspects were, what the government was learning about their origins, who might still be out there. Many public officials were very carefully identifying them as a terrorist group rather than a religious group, but “Islam” and “Muslim” were words that kept being repeated.
Then I remembered something about my life growing up right here in Oklahoma City. In 1995 I was a graduate student working at a local psychiatric hospital. I was in the attic of my rented apartment in the historic district one morning when a significant explosion happened just a few miles away. Some of the small windows in the attic were blown in, my ears rang for a minute, and I began to see smoke coming up from downtown. The Murrah Building had been hollowed out, blown apart by a truck, full of fertilizer, that had parked in the front next to the daycare and then detonated. During that event I was able to help, working Code Black shifts until midnight for children separated from their parents or injured while at the Y just a short distance from the explosion.
One thing ingrained in my memory was that for more than a week, the news media and public officials continued to claim that Muslim terrorists were likely suspects and investigators were following leads. I knew that there had been members of the Muslim community in Oklahoma City my whole life. I had a few students in my school that I believed were Muslim, but I did not know enough to think of them anything other than just culturally and religiously different from me. And I knew nothing at all of Islam. I was to learn, weeks later, that many members of the OKC Muslim community were actually attacked, threatened, and verbally assaulted during and after the events of the Murrah bombing investigation. After almost two weeks local officials identified two white men, one already apprehended, as lead suspects, and there was less and less coverage of Muslim terrorists, but no apologies or retractions. I remember a (non-Muslim) city leader pleading to local citizens to leave Muslim community members alone, that they were not a threat to our safety, but I remember thinking that those community members were not neighbors, not residents of my city, they were simply Muslims living here. I left them alone, and simply went back to my life without thought or interest to learn more about them or their faith. Or see them as my neighbors.
Now, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as I was driving the US highway system toward home, my own ignorance was front and center, and tied to fear. I did not just jump to the conclusion that Muslims must be evil, and that any of them could be capable of the atrocities committed in New York City, but I certainly wondered whether their faith system and the teachings of Muhammad could be blamed for inciting terrorism. And as I continued to drive, I began to notice a change in the messages of the billboards. Messages like “God will give swift justice” (Luke 18:8) and “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). These messages of an avenging god, again next to the US flag. Then I began to hear of new attacks, threats, verbal assaults on the Muslim Americans living in the US, who could not possibly have had something to do with the attacks but were here, and of the same expressed religion as the terrorists. How was I to think about this religion and the people who followed it?
I believe, not because I was loving and seeking knowledge, but rather because I had models my whole life who encouraged me not to make assumptions but rather educate myself, that at this point I saw my choice: go down the road of fear, anger and blame, or hold that back and begin to try to learn. It wasn’t a “lightbulb moment” or a sudden dedication of myself to learning. It didn’t even immediately begin. I just held off on believing that a religion in and of itself could give birth to such monstrous acts. And I began looking at the violence that has come out of multiple people groups subscribing to other religions around the world and throughout history, most chiefly, in my own ancestry, that of Christianity.
A few years later I had the sublime luck to witness the installation of the dome on a mosque in Oklahoma City that my brother happened to be building. I had been reading books about Islam and Muslims but not the Qur’an itself, and I had no direct contact with Oklahoma City Muslims. So I went to the installation (with wife and kids in tow, telling them I really wanted them to have this cultural opportunity as well) and I introduced myself to several members of the mosque. I was warmly greeted. My hosts welcomed my whole family to the campus and stated feeling honored we wanted to be there. They offered tea, and conversation, and I asked them if they had meetings or classes to introduce the tenets of the faith and the Qur’an. They immediately invited me to a study group on the Qur’an. And I read. And learned. This willingness on my part to meet the stranger, to listen and to share, changed me.
My time with this great group of young adults became a year-long exchange between students at the Christian college where I spoke and those young adult students of Islam (who also happened to be college students at OU and the local medical school). It propelled me into the Interfaith Alliance, where I am now President, and to the Respect Diversity Foundation, where I am now a Program Director and writer. My goal now is to help our community reach its potential for connectedness, for respect, for relationship across all our differences, cultural, religious and otherwise. We have so much wealth in our diversity that is still untapped!
We have beautiful communities of faith here, the Muslim community a chief example. My understanding of religions, of the systems of faith behind them, has radically changed because of my curiosity and willingness to be taught in the course of human relationship. Muslim Oklahomans have suffered immensely, in the past and present, with political leaders often at the forefront of the assaults, for no reason. For this to cease, for us to be true community and allow people to heal, we must each engage in curiosity, with respect, to spend time with and get to know each other.