No Mere Tragedy

Ellen Tucker

September 1, 2001

Here on California’s central coast, I observed the National Day of Mourning by attending our community’s regularly scheduled service of "Taize" prayer. Based on liturgy developed in the ecumenical Christian community of Taize, France, these candlelit services use short sung prayers, repeated over and over, to create a meditative atmosphere. In a normal Taize service, the mood is quiet and concentrated, each singer patiently awaiting the response of God to his private concerns. This month the service had rotated to a Catholic parish in a largely Latino neighborhood of Seaside. The music was the same, but the mood was different: tense, noisy. Atypically for a Taize service, the sanctuary was packed. Latecomers arrived steadily, purchasing candles in the narthex, bearing these small lights into the back pews. Young parents stood in the aisles bouncing restless toddlers in their arms.

Usually Taize services strive for a seamless continuity of prayer, song and scripture, amplifying all of these from a hidden circle of seated liturgists, keeping the visual focus on a large rugged cross occupying the altar space. This evening the priest had opted to use the pulpit for scripture and prayer. People shifted in the pews, waiting for readers to walk up to the large Bible; then strong voices rang over the loudspeakers—first in Spanish, which I do not speak. I strained to make out the intent anyway. "Bien por mal," the reader concluded: Romans, chapter 12, with its admonition to return good for evil. The congregation expelled breath, then slowly took up the next song.

As chimes tolled for the lives lost on Tuesday, babies started to cry. Then the prayerful were invited to kneel before the candlelit cross. People carried their candles and children into the center aisle, as if moving forward to receive communion. An entire immigrant community brought forward its grief for its adopted home. I joined the stream in the center aisle and for the first time cried too.

During the first days’ coverage of the events in Manhattan, I was struck by the comment of a radio journalist who noted the different languages and accents she heard in the crowd of those waiting for news of survivors. I recalled an ex-government minister I had met in the Congo fourteen years ago, a wealthy man with the elegance and charm of a movie star, who, although he spoke impeccable English, had enrolled in my English as a foreign language class and easily dominated every class discussion. He had confided that of all the cities in the world he had visited, "New York is the one in which I feel most at ease." In sleepy Brazzaville, where a few multi-story modern buildings shaded by flame trees punctuated the city center, he was a sort of prince, surrounded by admirers and sycophants. In New York he strode beneath giant skyscrapers and was jostled by thousands of people with outsized ambitions like his own. He must have felt in New York, as no where else, his equality with other men. Was he watching the news now? From what I have read about subsequent civil war in the Congo, he has been burned out of his home at least once in the last decade, but no doubt he has reestablished a residence. He had to be watching-and he must feel deeply hurt.

Later that morning, a long-lost friend phoned from Berlin. "Well, this is really !?*!," she said. This friend grew up in Brazil, where her German-Jewish mother and Serbian father had met after fleeing ethnic ferocity and holocaust in Europe. A consular officer, during her first week posted in Cote d’Ivoire she had to help identify victims and notify families after a Brazilian airliner crashed. A decade later she was holed up in a Belgrade apartment building with the cat of the already evacuated Finnish ambassador as NATO bombs fell around her, trying to translate her father’s World War II-era journals. Now she was calling us to express her sympathy and outrage, saying that the attack on the World Trade Center was just too much.

She might have said, "So now, dear friends, you have lost your innocence too." She did not, for she regards New York as her city. She feels its loss of innocence as keenly as I. When we lived on the east coast, she visited us, touring the museums and department stores of Washington, DC and New York with an energy I couldn’t match. She returned to our house via Metro with shopping bags and imagination filled. I queried her for news of Cote d’Ivoire, which she had left, and Europe, where she had moved, and she explained what she could; but she insisted (this woman who speaks seven languages), "It is only when I visit America that I really learn new things."

Make no mistake. This is no mere national tragedy. Sure, we have been envied, even resented around the world for our seeming immunity to the suffering that elsewhere afflicts so much of humanity. But we have inspired hope for almost the same reason. Our happy prosperous existence has suggested it is possible for diverse peoples to live together peacefully, in freedom. Let us not forget how many others share with us this hope, and that only its disappearance would be insurmountable.

Ellen Tucker is a teacher who lives in Monterey, California.