9/11 at the Top of Poplar
It started out like any other Tuesday. I was holed up in my study, probing and praying the sermon text for Sunday.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the secretary alerted me we were receiving calls about airliners crashing into the World Trade Center. Panic was spreading these might be terrorist attacks. I convened the other ministers and we started trying to piece together what was happening.
This was in the days before the web was the go-to place for breaking news; slow, dial-up connections were still the norm. And Twitter, Facebook, and other social media that now report news as it happens were not yet on the scene. So we rigged up a television in one of the back offices where there was a cable jack. Staff and several church members who happened to be in the office huddled around the TV screen. We watched in deepening shock and horror as the true dimensions of the tragedy were revealed.
Soon we learned another aircraft had crashed into the Pentagon. Then the smoking ruin of the first World Trade Center Tower came crashing down; thirty minutes later, the other tower disintegrated into a billowing cloud of rubble. The estimated loss of life was staggering. Reports came in of another plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field. Fighter jets were scrambled. The nation’s military was poised for action. Our little band of shell-shocked observers braced for the next cataclysm. Would Robins Air Force Base be next? Atlanta? Even Macon? It felt like the end of the world.
By 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., emotionally traumatized folks began pouring into the church. They came seeking sanctuary, solace, community. We opened up the sanctuary and put the word out we would have a community Prayer Service at noon.
By twelve o’clock, 150 people or so had found their way to the top of Poplar. Many gathering for the service were not First Baptist members but nuns in their habits, attorneys in three-piece suits, nurses in their scrubs. Frankly, I don’t remember the Scriptures we read, or what I or anyone else said. I just know we instinctively turned to the Psalms, the songs of lament God’s people have prayed and sung for three thousand years. Many of those Psalms took final form in the aftermath of Israel’s 9/11, when Solomon’s Temple was razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and her best and brightest citizens courted off into exile.
The Tuesday that started out as the most ordinary of days turned into a world-defining moment. Somehow, we prayed and wept, clutched and hugged our way through that terrible day. In the presence of God and God’s people, we found the strength to face unfathomable loss and paralyzing fears. It turned out we needed all the courage we could muster. Because by Tuesday noon on 9/11, the serene, secure world we had known on Monday, was forever gone.