January 15, 2021

In Love’s Service Only Wounded Soldiers Can Serve: A New Yorker’s Reflections on 9/11

Guest Post by R-J Heijmen

Note from CM: Mockingbird is one of the finest, most interesting blogs you will read on the web right now. Their ministry is located in Charlottesville, VA, but for the first three years of operations, their offices were at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City.

As I was thinking about someone to give us a New Yorker’s perspective on 9/11 and its aftermath, I contacted David Zahl, Mockingbird’s Executive Director, and he said he would gladly have one of his writers share with us.

So, today we at IM are happy to present this fine essay by R.J. Heijmen, Mockingbird contributor and Head Minister at St. Paul’s Church in NYC.

• • •

A New Yorker’s Reflections on 9/11
by R-J Heijmen

My wife and I moved into New York City 3 days after the Towers fell. Strangely, it was a great time to be driving a Uhaul into Manhattan – no traffic. Our 26th-story apartment, while approximately five miles north of ground zero, faced south, giving us a direct view of the dust and smoke rising from the great pile, and later the two skyward-soaring spotlights, nightly reminders (as if we needed them) of what had taken place on that bright Tuesday morning. Riding the subway was like touring a mausoleum, especially the Union Square station, plastered as it was with photos, names, numbers to call in the event that some survivor should be located, as well as innumerable candles, lit either in hopeful vigil or resigned mourning.

As the weather began to turn cooler, my wife and I noticed dark evening rings around our throats as we pulled off our turtlenecks – dust carried from the site by the winds and deposited in the crevice between our skin and garments. I shudder now to think of the composition of that greasy soot.

We had moved to New York to become co-directors of a youth ministry, but before we could begin programs, there were funerals to attend. There were also friends with survival stories, both fantastic and horrible: the guy who had had a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World that morning but slept through his alarm; the other guy who ran out of his lower Manhattan office building while suicidal bodies fell all around him.

Yet for all the death, destruction and despair, that Fall was also a profoundly hopeful, almost joyful time in New York, as the city seemed to rediscover its humanity. 9/11 prompted frantic New Yorkers to reconsider what really mattered, to recalibrate their priorities and motivations. New York came together like never before, and a certain graciousness, civility, even tenderness pervaded daily interactions. My wife and I had girded ourselves for the “big bad city,” but instead we encountered kindness and consideration: unexpected “God bless you’s” when we sneezed, strangers making room for us at cafes and restaurants. Thornton Wilder has written that “in love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve,” and New York seemed a demonstration of this truth.

New Yorkers also found God, or rather were found by Him. For those first few weeks, churches were absolutely packed. There are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, and “secular” New Yorkers (which is a bit of a misnomer, I have found) went to the only place they knew to find answers to impossible questions. I do not pretend to know the mind of God, but it seems to have always been the case that tragedy turns people His way, and many never turned back again.

Although the question will be much-discussed in the coming weeks, I am still not sure what 9/11 “meant.” It may not even be appropriate or fruitful to ask, but as I have thought over that time in my life, three notions keeping coming back into my head: connection, vulnerability and sovereignty.

9/11 showed us that we are more connected, to each other, to the rest of the world, to God, than we ever knew before. For all of its multi-cultural flavor, New York can be remarkably provincial. Many move to this city to be exposed to more varied people, opportunities and experiences, but New York is also an all-too-easy place in which to forget about everywhere and everyone else. 9/11 shocked people out of themselves, forced them to see their neighbors, both across the hall and across the world.

9/11 also shattered New Yorkers’ (and Americans’, with the possible exception of the defeated South) sense of invulnerability, of unassailability. We were brought into contact with our mortality, our fragility. We could no longer live in denial of death and suffering, either here or abroad. We had to acknowledge our essential powerlessness, our need.

And yet, 10 years later, even as our country struggles economically and politically, one would be hard-pressed to find a more hopeful time in another part of the world that was deeply affected by 9/11: the Middle East. The Arab Spring is nothing short of a miracle, and while I am too firm a believer in sin to think that it will last in its current form, something very real and positive, even divine, seems to be taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and beyond. I am not quite sure how to formalize it, but there appears to me some sort of connection between 9/11 and the Spring, an affirmation perhaps that, in God’s providence, love and non-violence always conquer hatred and aggression. The events in the Middle East seem another instance of God’s affirmative answer to the age-old question, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

In U2‘s song “Yahweh”, Bono sings that, with God, there is “always pain before the child is born,” always “darkness before the dawn”. What he means is that, in God’s economy, suffering seems always to precede deliverance.  Good Friday must always come before Easter morning. The Bible shows us, time and time again, the pattern of the cruciform life, how God “kills and makes alive”, how He levels before He raises up. For New York, for America, there have been few, if any, more excruciating days than September 11th, 2001. Yet, as we place our faith in the risen Jesus, we place it as well in the God who brings life out of death, working all things together for our good.


  1. R.J. I loved your story…but I’m going to disagree with your take on how there is no such thing as atheists in a foxhole. I heard the cliche when I was invovled in some of the evangelical ministries I was once a part of . However, after moving to Washington, D.C. I rubbed shoulders with differnet people of all stripes, faiths, and belief systems. One shocker to me was knowing atheists who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. So yes they do exist.

    If you want to read about this further read, “A Chaplin and an Atheist go to War”. It was published by the Wall Street Journal. Here’s the link…if the link doesn’t work just google it.


    But I really enjoyed your perspective. I’ve known people affected by September 11 here in Washington, D.C. but the horror that took place in New York is beyond description.

    • DC, like New York is a sea of different cultures, races and creeds. When I visit (usually for business), for me it is actually exciting (especially when I go to eat – one day I ate at Afgan, then Indian, then Thai). And since I am not bashful (and a bit of a history and theology nut) I get a chance to have some great discussions from the Orthodox jew to the muslim, to the hindu – great chance to learn.

      I just can’t take getting in line to drive anywhere – all the time…

  2. New Yawkah’s are actually a very friendly bunch, and although abrupt, tend to go out of their way to help you find where you need to go in the city.

  3. It is encouraging to hear that a few of the people who went “looking for answers” stuck with it. The conventional wisdom back here in the Bible Belt is that the 9/11 revival was a temporary thing. I’m glad to hear that hope was able to triumph in the midst of the tragedy.

    • Well after all at some point we had to get back to the real debates. You know. YEC vs. OE. Calvinism. A woman’s place in the church. When can someone be baptized and by whom. Who is a real Christian.

      All that important stuff.

    • Hmm, let’s see. The latest statistics show that the area of the Bible Belt has the highest divorce rate in the nation, the highest rate of cohabitation in the nation, and the highest percentage of thrice-married people in the nation. New York state has among the lowest in all three. Hmmm, soooo, uhm, how do I word this, uhm …… Which set of states are more family oriented?

      • Wouldn’t it be something if after gays have more rights, (etc.. marriage, unions, abilities to adopt, etc..) and then Barna or the Census Bureau releases stats that show Southern Baptists have a higher divorce rate that married gays! 😯 Would that really surprise anyone…?

  4. With all due respect, it is one thing to seek the dawn after the darkness, and another to mistake the oncoming freight train for the dawn. The “Arab Spring” will inexorably lead to stricter Islamic regimes in all the countries affected, since the Muslim Brotherhood is more popular and influential than any modernizing groups. This is a “miracle” in the sense that an earthquake is a miracle.

    • I agree that is one possibility. I think some of the rebellion has been started by young intellectuals – but they are not organized. In the end the better organized, more militant forms of Islam, weariing a mask of deception may come out the winner. And I am sure that scares countries like Saudi Arabia. Egypt may have a better chance than most of coming out on top due to the number of post graduates it has been dumping onto the market, many of whom couldn’t find work. In other countries such as Syria the fundementalist factions may have a better chance.

      • Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak once to a gymnasium filled with college students in South America. As he entered the room, the crowd began to pelt the stage and wall behind him with rotten fruit and tomatoes. He wasn’t hit a single time. Kennedy turned to an aide, and said, “If this is the next generation of revolutionaries, they’re going to have to improve their aim.”

        I tend to agree with Radagast on this one. I think that we in the west are not as well-informed about how divided Islam is on many levels…as much as Christianity is, in many of the same ways.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Somebody told me that what’s going on throughout the Islamic world is a civil war fueled by future shock and 9/11 was al-Qaeda making an Act of Faith to make their rep in a bid for leadership in this Islamic Civil War.

    • I think as a general rule, if anyone tries to argue that ““Arab Spring” will inexorably lead to” anything, you should immediately stop listening. Nobody has any idea what it will actually lead to. We will just have to wait and see.

  5. Tom Huguenot says

    “here appears to me some sort of connection between 9/11 and the Spring, an affirmation perhaps that, in God’s providence, love and non-violence always conquer hatred and aggression.”

    Please someone, tell me where “loev and non-agression” were in Iraq and Gaza? Do you really believe that the thousands of killes and injured civilians thought they were treated with love?

    Nobody knows what can be the results of the so-called “Arab Spring”. We should ask the Western agencies that have prepared it what they meant for it to be, but I doubt the results will be good…Democracy implies secularization, Islam refuses secularization, therefore there can be no muslim democracy…

    • Democracy implies secularization? That is a rather recent notion, and it doesn’t seem to me like it will stick around.

      • Tom Huguenot says

        Well, basically, the only recognizable force opposing the “notion” is the American Religious Right (and very consistently, which is a good thing). The debate is over in the rest of the Western world…

  6. Thank you for this. I love your perspective.


  7. “…in God’s economy, suffering seems always to precede deliverance. Good Friday must always come before Easter morning. The Bible shows us, time and time again, the pattern of the cruciform life, how God “kills and makes alive”, how He levels before He raises up. For New York, for America, there have been few, if any, more excruciating days than September 11th, 2001. Yet, as we place our faith in the risen Jesus, we place it as well in the God who brings life out of death, working all things together for our good.”

    Beautiful thoughts. There’s an old Arab proverb that says something along the lines of, “If there were no days of rain, then life would be a desert.” If we didn’t understand pain and suffering, why would we ever appreciate deliverance?

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