The bright Florida sun beamed through the windows of my boyfriend’s Honda Accord as we drove the three miles between our apartment and campus. Howard Stern’s voice boomed through the speakers. As he argued with his co-hosts about why he hadn’t slept with Pamela Anderson, American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Given the messenger, I thought it was a joke. Walking into school immediately proved him honest, at least in this case. TVs hung on every wall and the burning 110-story skyscraper digitally surrounded me as I walked to my 9am editing lab where my classmates and instructor sat silently glued to the screen.
The rest of the day’s classes were canceled, and we made our way home under palm trees and absurdly blue skies that now felt out of place, the Florida sun somehow dimmer than before.
“I guess we’re at war now,” I said, half question, half bewildered statement.
“We’re not at war,” my boyfriend laughed, not the first or last time a man would attempt to undermine my inner Knowing. It was too early to say with who, but surely someone attacking the United States on our own soil would not end well. I didn’t argue. My world was still small, and the way 9/11 would shape us all far beyond it.
Details fell slowly like ashes from the crumbled towers. Around 9:30 pm the director of the CIA told President George W. Bush—tucked safely inside a bunker beneath the White House—that Osama Bin Laden was the attack’s mastermind.
Like every other college student and most Americans, I didn’t know the name Osama bin Laden. I also didn’t know God. As a child, I begged God to keep my parents from divorcing. As an adolescent, I plead for God to keep my mother from moving me out of state. And as a teenager in the throes of depression and suicidal ideation, I cried out again. God didn’t answer, and I came to the only natural conclusion—God’s not there. Or maybe, if God is there, God didn’t care about me.
I packed “lack of belief” along with my meager belongings and thrifted furniture into a U-Haul that my dad drove from Indiana to Orlando. It wasn’t an identity I wore as a badge but rather a receipt I kept in my pocket from the first two decades of life, evidence that the Divine is absent.
But on September 11th, 2001, I prayed. I prayed for the families of those who were killed. I prayed for the first responders searching for survivors among the rubble. I prayed for Osama bin Laden.
For some reason, on that day, I knew God was there. Everywhere. I had no former embodied examples of this, no mystic experiences to draw from, no Sunday school felt-board illustrations or youth-group-planted seeds to credit with my sudden faith. I just knew God was enough to hold all the pain in the world. The pain of those killed, of their loved ones, of the Muslim community, and even the pain in the hearts of the men flying those planes.
September 11th led me to a God who doesn’t take our pain away but chooses to be with us in it. In the two decades since, She has continually joined me there—in terminal illness. The death of a parent. The betrayal of my spiritual community. The mental illness and incarceration of my child.
The presence of the Divine does not mean the absence of suffering as I once hoped. To take away our suffering would be to take away our freedom. And control is the opposite of Love.
I don’t know what to make of a loving God amidst a culture of death, when twenty years later Afghans fall from the sky, attempting to escape terror my tax dollars funded. What I do know is Jesus weeps with them, is them. Ours is the Broken-Hearted God who from the beginning of time is with the broken-hearted.
My Knowing communicates to me the way the salt-soaked wind talks with the palm trees. In doing so, it tells me that the Divine loved Osama bin Laden and those he killed, that one faith tradition is too small to contain Mystery, and, because you cannot truly love what you are trying to control, expansive, always-with-us love is God’s heart for us all.