An American Awakening:
Ground zero

This is the first of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

The sheer cliffs of the pile rise to the east of where we are standing. These are the sliced corpses of buildings. Their bones are fractured. Their guts are spilling out. Sinews of tangled cable snake through eviscerated black tissue matted in clumps. “Where are we going?” I ask. Lyndon answers, “In there.”

We start to walk a slope. I feel extremely weak and horribly insignificant. The bewildering scale and uncountable number of shards, billions of gargantuan matchsticks dropped like giant pick-up sticks pointing in every direction make me feel like a speck. The thought of any team tackling this is irrational – absurd, pointless, impossible. This is a lost world. I hear the voice of one of the workers, “I looked at it and thought ten years it will take to do this. Ten years! Where do we even begin?”

I’ve never stood directly on ground where people came seeking to obliterate life. Most terrifying is the fact that you can still feel that intention to take, to sever, to confuse, to quell. There is an overwhelming feeling of subtraction. I feel it like hunger in my stomach, a great gnawing acid emptiness that makes me slightly sick.

All this tempts me to think, “Forget this you fool. Get out of here now. It is not too late to run.”

But this dissipates once we are with the workers. In contrast to the problem: death, destruction, fear, all the lost lives laced through this mind-boggling heap, and the horrible toll working in here must take on any human, are the acts I am about to see.

The man in the hazmat suit, who looks like a yellow astronaut, directs us to where they are digging. In the intense heat radiating through our clothes the workers gently rake the ash. The smell of decay is strong, but the seekers do not notice. They commune so intently with the one who is lost. I can almost hear them praying, “I will dig on my knees to find you. I will scoop you into my hand. I will carry you out and take you where we can name you. We will find the ones who love you and know that you belong. We did not leave you. We would never leave you in Hell.”

I am spellbound. Despite the hideous strength that is palpable, this contrasting commitment is total. It began the morning of the attack. It persisted through the early days and hours of search and rescue. Now it continues as the firefighters I see reach for those they failed to save on 9/11. These are human beings bound to the lost by one absolute and undeterred purpose: to protect, to serve and to rescue lives – no matter the cost, no matter the grave.

I think of what a firefighter said to me. “See this?” he asked, pointing to the shield in the shape of a Maltese cross stitched on his uniform. “It means that the person who wears this is willing to lay down his life for you.” I have never been completely surrounded by the presence of people like this.

The searchers speak in low voices. One of the ones who laid down his life has been found. We gather the person’s remains from the ash, immediately encircling the container in a blanket of prayer. One extraordinary life to thank the Creator for making. One life given for this world. One death that makes us incomplete forever. One of us.

I hear the voice of Tony, a sanitation worker and volunteer fireman.

“I really believe in my heart they knew they weren’t coming out. Everybody obviously gave up their life, but the firemen actually gave up their life to save somebody else’s, going in knowing full well they weren’t coming out. So that is why I don’t care what we have to do. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if they ask me to get down on one of those streets and lick it with my tongue. It won’t bother me. Because you can’t put any price on that there – what they did. So whatever it takes…”

Thank God that seeing humanity loved like this renews the passion to give all you can. Being in the presence of these men I begin to believe just maybe, if something of their commitment to life rubs off on the rest of us, many will be activated to give their all, and we will actually do this. If anything can tap into wells of passion and kindle the “whatever it takes” so that it catches, leaps from person to person, causes a chain reaction, seeing the sacrifices of these responders and remembering how they behaved in the moment of trial – that has the power to do it.

How many of us, I wonder, are having this experience in some way, in some measure? If thousands (maybe millions) this must be the most remarkable feature of the days we are living through. I don’t know if this is the case, but I feel as though I might be in the grip of a larger initiation.

I catch the parable of the firefighters’ task inside this giant wreck. If they represent how far our human hearts can go, our enormous capacity to care, to give, to sacrifice for each other, maybe the pile shows the time has come to unleash this power in all of us.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

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