An American awakening: Next

This is the third 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

One day in late May 2008, I am straightening some papers in my office and come across a cardboard box in the corner of the room. In it is a curious combination of haphazardly piled documents and artifacts. As I start to dig through them, I have the feeling people must have when they open a time capsule. It is as if, for a minute, I have returned to my old life of poring through musty diaries from the past.

Stacked on top of each other are layers and layers of images and articles from 9/11 and Katrina –now crumpled and yellowed by time –shuffled together in no particular order. In the upper regions of the pile are copies of some of the children’s letters that came to us in the chapel in the fall of 2001. Among them is my favorite –Claudia’s letter to a firefighter listing all the hair-raising catastrophic ways her young imagination can think of dying.

Since I love that letter so much I pause and read it again. Claudia was certain of one thing –that she would not die in a fire, “Because,” she said to the firefighter, “people like you would go into the fire to save an ordinary person like me. And that’s what makes you so great, courageous, brave, terrific, wonderful, special people.”

Underneath that letter is an article by Dr. Stephen Post, Director of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. I see by the date that the piece was written shortly after 9/11. As I glance at the lead for the story I see that Post is relaying an account of a journalist interviewing the famous children’s television personality, mr. Rogers, and asking him on behalf of parents, ‘What should we say to our children when they ask us questions about 9/11?” Mr. Rogers replied simply, “Tell them to keep their eyes on the helpers.”

Digging deeper in the box I find an old color photograph showing one side of the interior of the chapel with thousands of children’s letters taped to the walls and the pews –papering every inch. Suddenly I have a sense of all those impressionable young eyes watching us –watching all the helpers. Putting their crayons and pencils to paper they told us what they saw. They saw what makes human beings great.

Beneath those pictures are several more photographs from New Orleans. These are of young ladies in their late teens and early twenties straining to lift crates of debris as they gut a flooded home. What strikes me immediately is how vulnerable the girls look against the backdrop of grim destruction. I think to myself, “Why are so many kids who at their age should be having fun, choosing to shoulder such a heavy responsibility?” I sit for a moment looking at the two images side by side. Then suddenly my mind produces an answer: “These youth in New Orleans are the generation of children who wrote the letters papering the chapel’s walls. It is an “Oh my God!” kind of moment.

After that day my curiosity is piqued, and I begin to do some research. I discover that statistics gathered over the past few years reinforce the observation that an unusually strong altruistic streak is being exhibited by youth who gre up in the shadow of 9/11. It happens that these young people comprise the largest generation in our nation’s history.

The Claudias of our country – a whole generation – are coming of age right now. Something of the relentless love exhibited in their heroes who gave their lives at the time of 9/11 has seemingly come alive in them. Now my ears are alert to listening to what they say about their motivations. Every day I hear statements like Katie Mears’s, describing why she takes on the most difficult Katrina cases when she could be living a conventional twenty-something life: “To me giving up anybody is not an option.” That is exactly what I heard the first-responders say inside the pile.

This is the ethic that is saving New Orleans and may save our country as well. It is incredibly hopeful to realize that 50 million young Americans of this generation will be eligible to vote in 2008, and that the vast majority of them completely reject the notion that any human life is dispensable. How could they accept such an ethic? This is the 9/11 generation.

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

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