“A Glimpse into the Heart of Terror”

Rev. Julie Kain

As Unitarian Universalists, we are a community of memory… and we are a community of hope.

In our world of great uncertainty, still there are relatively few events that become distinct markers in our psyche. Some are singular personal transformations such as the death of a loved one or the birth of a child – others are events of such social magnitude that they become markers in our collective psyche.

Those of us who are familiar with the various impacts of grief in our personal lives will instantly recognize the phenomenon of anniversaries. It’s almost as if we have a subconscious internal calendar at times. We’re going about our lives and little things happen that start to remind us. It could be as simple as hearing a song or seeing a particular flower. We are reminded of a loss and a period of grief that we’ve experienced in our lives. It can be bittersweet.

There is this psychic marker but it’s hard to pin down in one place – kind of like how when something traumatic is happening and a lot is going on in a short amount of time but to us it feels like slow motion. I had that experience when I was in a car accident on a freeway in the metropolitan San Francisco bay area of California. I don’t remember the exact date but it was the first Sunday in March. It was during my parish internship year at the UU Church of Berkeley and I had just finished working a couple of months of straight Sundays and finally got to take one off.

I was on my way to Muir Woods when I found myself in a tangle with three other cars on the relatively empty freeway – it being Sunday morning and all.

The accident totaled my car and led to a year of intense sciatic pain in the following year but really it was a near miss. I was incredibly fortunate to have walked away from it with only a gouge under my chin and a cut lip. And although my car was totaled, it was strange that afterwards I felt like my whole life had suddenly changed and had shaken me to the very core of my being but there were no external signs to express the depth of the event’s impact on me.

Grief is like that. An intensity of feeling that is difficult to pin down in one time or place or thing. Somehow we still need that – a remembering site, and so anniversaries are important and so are grave sites. We need a place to go to remember and be present again with our grief and loss. It’s a part of healing, a part of coming to terms with our lives and with the impact of loss on us.

In a world of great uncertainty, still there are relatively few events that become distinct markers in our psyche.

If I were to ask each of you – where were you and what were you doing when the news came about the World Trade Center towers, I bet you could tell me without hesitation. September 11th will be for many, many years to come one such marker in our collective psyche.

I got a phone call from my mother as I was about to walk out the door in my first week of that parish internship in Berkeley. I knew as soon as I heard her voice on the phone that something must be wrong because she wouldn’t ordinarily call me at this time from the other side of the country. In my efforts to prepare myself for my new position I had not had the TV or radio on yet in the day.

I went on to the church and then later had a meeting at my seminary. Every person I encountered was dazed and distraught. We didn’t know what to do and could not bring ourselves to do the things that were planned for the day.

We were drawn magnetically to the TV sets and radio stations. I will never forget walking into my school to find a crowded fireside room with students, faculty and school employees huddled around the TV. And there, front and center, were the president of the school, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker and the then president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations, Rev. John Buehrens. The two of them, among the most brilliant and articulate of our denomination, sat speechless next to the rest of us.

So it is five years later now and frankly it’s still hard to know just what to say about September 11.

Yes – there is a deeply uncomfortable silence that accompanies our grief and the shock that is still present to this day. It’s painful to remember. It’s painful and overwhelming still to recall, but we need to.

How can we forget, though we may unconsciously try?  When the fabric of our universe is torn, it cannot be undone. If there ever is to be a healing, it is from the knitting back together of what was once torn apart and we, my friends, are still on the mend.

Five years ago on September 11, on the morning when I was just starting my parish internship at the UU Church of Berkeley, my daughter was just starting her first year in college. I was pleased and relieved that even though she had moved out from living with me (my baby!) she was just across the bay from Berkeley in San Francisco. After my meeting at the school I returned to the Berkeley Church.

I kept looking across the bay at the beautiful San Francisco skyline and I was thinking for the first time what a great target it would be. Major city, major port, contained on a slim peninsula. I felt a terror rising within me for the city before my eyes and my daughter there. I felt panicked to get back to the TV to find out what had happened next.

The fact that not one but two towers were impacted left this incredible sensation – what’s next?

It’s a fear we still have on a variety of levels and one that has fueled a fevered preoccupation with terrorism, not unlike our major preoccupation with countering the stated evil of communism in recent decades past.

“The enemy is out there and they want to get us. They will stop at nothing to destroy us – our way of life, our homes, and our families. “

The heart of terror is a very dark place filled with fear. Although I have never lived in New York City, I can imagine how strange it must still be for its residents to see the altered city skyline and the very real space of emptiness and debris left behind from a single day’s events. A space of tragic loss and utter insecurity. It is painful to remember and yet…how can we forget?

As Unitarian Universalists, we are a community of memory… and a community of hope.

Well what does that mean exactly?

Let me tell you.

For one, it means that this community, years after the tragic death of one of  its members at a local women’s health clinic, continues to faithfully provide escorts and move forward in hope for women’s rights. We are a community of memory and we are a community of hope.

I am proud to serve you as your newly settled minister. You inspire me with your dedication to each other and to the larger community of which we are part, including the global community.

Every Sunday when we say the names of the fallen young people who are serving our country, and as we remember the lives – military and civilian –  of men, women and children – who have died in Iraq, we are remembering. And we are keeping hope alive for an end to this ill-fated encounter.

Yes, it is painful to remember and even to keep hope, but we must as people of faith.

Today and tomorrow – as we join with people all over the country and around the world to remember the lives lost on September 11, we form a community of memory.

But beyond our remembering, beyond the grief and despair and the sense of vulnerability and powerlessness, many of us feel today – how do we form a community of hope? How do we transform the fear we have seen in the heart of terror into something with promise?

Today and in the coming weeks as the holy seasons of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah approach, may we join with people of all faiths around the world to affirm our birthright desire of safety and self-determination for our families and our communities. May we affirm in every way we can the inherent worth and dignity of religious, cultural and political expression by all peoples of good will.

By affirming our common humanity, as Americans we can extend a hand of fellowship, of human sympathy and common understanding around the world to all peoples who experience the fear of life-threatening circumstance, the insecurity of terrorism and the uncertainty of social instabilities of all kinds.

We can build a new community of hope as Americans, by resisting the political, economic and cultural arrogance with which we frequently present to our world neighbors. We can support the vital work of the United Nations and many other non- governmental organizations who promote conflict resolution and the development of human rights in all countries. We can focus on a spirit of generosity rather than individual entitlement and work toward an equitable standard of living for all people, which is the essence of the democratic ideal. We don’t necessarily need to impose our own political and economic agendas in other parts of the world that we view as a threat.

We can build a community of hope by acknowledging our common humanity, despite the terrors committed by extremists, and despite real differences in religious, political and cultural ways of being. We are, after all, fellow humans on the planet, cherishing the safety of our families and communities and “caught in an inescapable web of mutuality”, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently pointed out.

Let us be a strong community of memory and hope as we stand with people of faith and good will around the world to remember September 11.

Please join with me, if you will, in a closing prayer.


# 470  Affirmation

We affirm the unfailing renewal of life.

Rising from the earth, and reaching for the sun, all living creatures shall fulfill themselves.

We affirm the steady growth of human companionship.

Rising from ancient cradles and reaching for the stars, people the world over shall seek the ways of understanding.

We affirm a continuing hope.

That out of every tragedy the spirits of individuals shall rise to build a better world.

Leonard Mason