It’s been 19 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center (September 11, 2001) and 40 years since Mount St. Helens erupted (May 18, 1980). Pictured are two vials of ash—one from each event, along with a missing person flyer given to me by the family of Tonyell McDay, who perished in the explosion of World Trade Tower 1.
My life and career came close to both disasters. I was preaching at Our Savior’s Lutheran in Sunnyside, WA that day in May 1980 and my family and I watched as the ash plum blew its way down the Yakima River valley and covered our car with about a half inch of ash by the time church was over that morning. I was called up to serve at the New Jersey Family Assistance Center at Liberty State Park near Jersey City, N.J. as a member of the Spiritual Air Incident Response (SAIR) team that coordinated with the Red Cross to bring spiritual care to families of victims of 9/11.
The first vial (left) holds ash from Mt. St. Helens. It is the residue of a catastrophic natural event. It covered the mountains and plains of the Northwest and literally spread around the world as it reached the upper atmosphere. This vial came from the windswept plains of Central Washington near Connell. There the whole landscape was laid desolate for weeks as the ash collected and covered everything.
I remember how devastating it was to lands, crops, animals, machinery and humans during the days and months that followed the eruption of the volcano. The ashes sifted into lungs and carburetors and caused irreparable harm to living beings and machines that humans used in their normal everyday lives. These ashes remind me of the reality of sin and alienation that has consequences in our lives. It covers everything and lays waste our lives. It infects us and alters us both in the inside and outside. Most of the time Its internal affects cannot be readily seen—but they are there and effect how we relate to others. Much like those living organisms that lived through those days post Mt St. Helens, sin has its destructive affect’s in our lives, particularly if we are not paying attention.
The second vial (right) holds the ash from the Twin Towers that collapsed under the destructive forces of the terrorist attack on 9/11/01. I scooped them off a vehicle that was parked four blocks from “Ground Zero” in Manhattan while I was working with the Red Cross to support those who were devastated by the events of 9/11. It may be hard to notice in the picture, but the ash in this vial is different. It actually carries pieces of pulverized concrete, paper and other materials that were literally blown for blocks in all directions around the towers as they collapsed.
These ashes remind me that human acts can have serious consequences—that evil is always active in the world. More than that, they remind me of the suffering of human beings in the face of tremendous loss and grief. The missing person flyer pictured is one of thousands that were made and circulated in New York and New Jersey during those initial days after the attacks. They spread all over New England and the East Coast as families desperately tried to find their loved ones. I was privileged to work alongside other chaplains, social workers, and governmental agency employees who witnessed such human suffering—all of it experienced by individuals and families who were coping with the effects of human evil. It was our honor to attempt to help them in those initial days, but we all knew that their pain and suffering would last throughout the rest of their lives.
We are in the middle of perhaps the most devastating event that has happened in the last hundred years—the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these previous events pale in comparison to the illness and loss of life (although I will not minimize the suffering from either of them). We are closing in on 200,000 deaths and several million infected persons. Interestingly, this pandemic is caused through natural elements and human actions. As this pandemic mounts it becomes harder not to know someone who has not been affected or infected.
As we deal with this present tragedy how shall we make sense of it—just as we made sense of those events of 1980 and 2001? Yes, there is sin, and its effects on us from both the natural and human world. There is evil, and its affects upon all of us. But there is also hope that passing through these challenging times will eventually bring back some sense of the normal. It was an interesting side affect of the ash from St. Helens, that crops in the fields of Western Washington had better yields for years afterwards due to the elements that fell with the ash that day. A direct effect of 9/11 was that it brought this nation together like it has not been in modern history—to respond with acts of kindness and care for all those who feared further acts of terrorism and cooperative responses such as the one I took part in and experienced directly. What will be our “silver lining” when this disease is finally conquered through immunization and active and intentional prevention.
There is a prayer that I was taught as a boy—it comes from Luther’s Small Catechism—and it seems perfect for these days. It is Luther’s morning prayer:
Seems like an appropriate response to these days as we pray for the safety of ourselves and those around us.