The value of church in the face of global tragedy

Dear colleagues,

On September 11, 2001, I was in my second year of university. I first found out about the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre while sitting in “Eastern Europe in Transition,” a course for my political science major I’ve since entirely forgotten. As word spread around campus and class ended, I did what I always did on Tuesday mornings at that hour: I went to the college chapel.

That year, I worked as a student assistant in the chapel, helping set up for the daily morning service. With my mind and heart full, I went to the chaplain’s office and began the usual routine of marking Bible passages, putting up hymn numbers, and lighting candles. As I did, the small group of us in the office listened to the radio as CBC described the collapse of the second tower. The contrast between the unprecedented news and the mundane work of preparing for a service is my strongest memory of 9/11.

This week we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks that, along with the response to them, have defined the opening decades of the 21st century. There are many sorrows, many lessons, and much to reflect on in this time. One of the lessons I take away from that beautiful Tuesday morning in September is about the importance of the church simply being there. When we walked out to lead that service that morning, there were close to 100 people in the chapel, five times as many as at a normal service. At our evening service that day, when we were lucky to draw three or four people, there were 60. Drawn by the ringing of the bell and a sense of needing to take their feelings some place, people came through the chapel doors. The services didn’t solve their problems or resolve their feelings but it did provide a space of rest and consolation.

At least that’s what it did for me. Like everyone else on that day, I was full of emotion and concern and fear that I didn’t know what to do with. As I sat in a pew and let the familiar cadences of prayer and psalm and hymn wash over me, I found what I needed to make it through the rest of the day.

One of my favourite expressions about prayer is something like this: “Pray when it’s easy so when it’s get hard, you can pray easily.” 9/11 taught me the importance of having daily disciplines of prayer and reflection. Some days it can feel somewhat rote or not-quite-right. Other days it can put a lift in your step for the day ahead. And sometimes, when it seems everything is falling apart—either in your own personal life or in the world around you—it is the crutch you need to survive. 9/11 was a hard day. But on that day, I and so many other people in my university community brought to the chapel a whole mess of emotions we couldn’t take anywhere else and found it easy to pray. That, I think, is not such a bad description of what the church can be.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.