Asking why on 9/11 anniversary

Like everybody, I remember what I was doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

At the time, I was religion editor of The Oklahoman, the metro daily in Oklahoma City. I was running a few minutes late that Tuesday because I stopped at Walmart to buy a new pair of cleats for a company softball team starting the fall season that night. As it turned out, we didn’t play.

As I flashed my company ID at the security guard outside the newspaper building, he asked if I’d heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York. I had not. Minutes later, after I arrived in the ninth-floor newsroom, my colleagues and I watched on television as a second plane hit the twin towers. Almost immediately, ABC anchor Peter Jennings likened the attack to Pearl Harbor. That’s when I grasped the significance.

The rest of that day is a blur. Like my reporter colleagues all over the nation, I immediately put aside any personal feelings and operated on journalistic adrenaline. I wrote four bylined stories for the next day’s paper: one on the religious community’s response, one on Muslim fears of a backlash, one on Oklahoma City bombing victims’ reactions and one on a eyewitness account by an Oklahoma professor’s daughter. Like many (most?) Americans, I tossed and turned that night.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, I recall interviewing religious leaders and ordinary congregants as they looked to God and sought to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Ten years later, many of the questions remain the same. I was pleased to see a story this week by CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi exploring what pastors plan to say this weekend:

(CNN) – The details of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the plane crash in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, will be remembered at length this week.  What, when, how and who will dominate the headlines.   As people across the country head to churches, temples and mosques this weekend, they will once again wonder why. They will look to the pulpit and listen for an answer.

This week, clergy of all faiths are preparing answers as their congregants ask why 9/11 happened, how it should be remembered and what their response should be as they go out from their sacred space and back into the secular.

For some, there will be calls to patriotism among the prayers.  Others will shy away from country.

Now, my main complaint with this story is that it uses two spaces after each sentence. (Please refer to this Slate piece on “why you should never, ever” do that. Smile.)

Seriously, this is a terrific story:

1. It’s fresh. Yes, it’s a fairly obvious angle, but it’s an important one. Better yet, it’s ahead of the curve. Put it another way: Would you rather read what pastors are going to say right now or wait until Monday to see what they said Sunday? I don’t know about you, but by Monday, I suspect I’m going to be approaching 9/11 overload.

2. It’s Shrek-like. You know what I mean if you’ve seen the movie (“Onions have layers. Ogres have layers.”). This story has layers. The writer talked to religious leaders all over the nation. He quotes a United Church of Christ pastor, Catholic priests, a Southern Baptist chaplain, a Jewish rabbi, a daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham and a spectrum of other voices. The only omission (and this may fall in the category of “glaring”) is that there’s not a Muslim voice. It would have been nice to hear from at least one imam.

3. It’s not afraid of religious words. Read it, and the story mentions the lectionary, Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness, specific passages in Matthew and 2 Chronicles, etc. And it does so in a way that’s incredibly easy for the religious and non-religious alike to understand. You feel like the writer knows his stuff. (Maybe that’s because a Godbeat pro wrote it.)

Even at 1,800 words, there’s no way this story could include every voice and perspective. All of us probably could suggest other angles or sources that could have been included.

But it’s a nice read. Check it out.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Pete

    Oh, come on now! The one and two space arguments are both arbitrary. Besides, given my habit, being wrong never felt so right!

  • Jerry

    I wonder to what degree theodicy will be a topic of sermons. One answer to that perennial question might be seen in the stories I’ve seen about positive changes related to 9/11.

    From a secular perspective, there have been innovations in skyscraper design, a historical discovery and in fact a rebirth of Lower Manhattan.

    But, perhaps much more importantly, 9/11 is ushered in a new phase of religious discourse. I wonder, for example, how 9/11 and consequent events influenced the Arab Spring now under way albeit with a result not presently known. That will naturally be a topic for historians sometime in the future, but the questions can be asked today.

    We have seen many different interfaith activities along with controversy about Islam as shown in the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly piece focused on an interfaith group in Syracuse NY

  • Bill P.

    I’m glad the story noted that the Gospel this Sunday is the command to forgive.

    Lord, if my brother sins against me,
    how often must I forgive?
    As many as seven times?”
    Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.

    What will be interesting is how reporters may (or may not) cover this detail, especially in relation to how a pastor may (or may not) unpack this passage.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    I’m really surprised that none of the 9/11 anniversary articles I’ve read (so far) reporting on the rebuilding progress at Ground Zero have included the destruction of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, and the ongoing controversy over where it will be rebuilt. It’s especially glaring in today’s Wall Street Journal story, which doesn’t even show the church in its map graphic of buildings that were destroyed or damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks. Religion ghost?

  • J

    Anyone who had high school typing knows that 2 spaces are required after periods. Of course, no one takes typing now-they take keyboarding. :)