A September 11 Story

In addition to being a graduate of the finest Lutheran institution of higher learning in the US, Rebecca Kolowe is a diaconal minister in the ELCA. In 2001, Rebecca was an ELCA missionary serving in Cameroon. A few years ago, she wrote this piece on the anniversary of 9/11. (You can read more by Rebecca at her blog)

September 11 is an eerie day for me, as I assume it also is for most Americans in the post 9/11/2001 era. What it must be like for most Americans to remember the happenings of that fateful day, however, and to have it define their consciences and their very beings, is not something that I am familiar with or can understand from experience.

The truth is that my September 11 story is one of life as a missionary in a predominately Muslim town in Central Africa. On September 11, 2001, I was living in Ngaoundere, a bustling town on the central plateau of Cameroon. I was teaching English and Bible at a Protestant High School where many of my students were Muslims. When those planes hit the World Trade Center, it was a little after 3 p.m. in my part of the world. I had just finished teaching for the day and had gone out to the market to buy rice, milk powder, and cheese.

My 9-11 story is that on that afternoon I walked into a shop for ex-patriots that is owned by a prominent and beloved Muslim family in our town. Madame Alizar and her husband are originially from Lebanon. They have made a good living opening their shop selling things that Africans don't eat (like cheese) to the many missionaries and foreign buisiness people that come to Ngaoundere.

On that afternoon the TV was on in the back room. When I came into the shop, Madame Alizar saw me and came out to the front counter. She grabbed my arm frantically and said, "What are you doing here?" Something was obviously wrong. She told me that I had to go home (to my home in Ngaoundere) at once, that something horrible had happened in America.

By the time I got back to my home, it was all over, and the other missionaries were looking for me. They had CNN International on and we all sat down and watched. We knew that this was REALLY bad. Perhaps some of us even knew what it might mean for our country. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know that I did not.

My experience of 9-11 is not one of fear. I don't understand what it was like in America in what must have been those horrible days following the attacks. I hear stories of the eerie quietness of the skies. I hear that the churches were full that following Sunday, and that people stopped each other in the street and remembered their humanity for a while. I have heard those stories.

I have also seen how much 9-11 shaped our consiousness as Americans into something that I didn't recognize when I finally came home to U.S. soil in July of 2002.

On September 12, 2001, I awoke to another average school day. Life just went on. And then there was a knock at my door. A Muslim woman who was my neighbor had come to offer her condolences for what had happened the day before in the U.S. I told her it was OK; I appreciated her kind words, but she didn't have any responsibility for what had happened. Then she told me something that I believe sets my 9-11 experience apart from probably just about every American I know: She said that she didn't have any personal responsibility for the violence, but she was sorry anyways. She talked about how disgusting it was that this horrific act of violence had been done in the name of her religion. She told me that this is not what Muslims believe, and that the Prophet Muhammed would not have condoned this.

This might not have marked me so deeply except that over the course of the day, it happened again and again. Muslim people who I knew, and ones I didn't know, came to me again and again, all day long, to tell me they were so sorry that this had happened and that it had been done in the name of a religion that they espoused. These people, my Muslim neighbors, were truly grieved by the violence that had been committed in the name of Islam, the Prophet they love, and the God they love.

When I came home to the U.S. I began to realize how different my 9-11 experience was from others' experiences. September 11, 2001, changed the face of America in ways that I do not believe are all positive. And, it seems to have been the defining moment of my generation, like the way the Kennedy or the MLK assassinations shaped my parents' generation, or the Great Depression and World War II shaped my grandparents'. And, strangely, I find myself being left out of that defining moment. I missed it--I missed the defining moment. That makes me incredibly different. I believe it also makes me incredibly lucky.

I have been given a gift. For many years, I was afraid to tell people about how the Muslim community cared about and supported me and my fellow missionaries in the days following September 11. It is a very unpopular message, but a true one. I know now, as I did then, that it is a story that needs to be told. I just haven't been able to tell it until very recently.

I know a very different Islam than the one that was portayed here in the days after 9-11. Don't believe everything that a too-liberal media tells you that you should believe about the events of that day and its aftermath. Don't believe everything the government tells you, either. The politics of fear have encroached on our lives and controlled us for too long. Propaganda was not just used in communist USSR or Nazi Germany to control the people; it has been used here in America, too, by our government and media over the last 8 years, and used well. Don't buy in to the idea that Islam is evil. "Islam vs. the West" is something that we have blindly accepted without really knowing what that means.

Remember September 11 for what it was. It was a tragic day in a world full of tragic days. Remember those little glimpses of humanity that you saw in the days following that tragedy. I know I do. I often think about those faithful Muslims who ministered to me in the aftermath of what has become an identity-altering day in the life of my nation. Pray that unity and new birth will arise from the ashes of that day, and that that unity and new birth will include a new identity where people of all faiths can be seen as valuable.