People were parking along the side of the road and walking for what must have been a mile. It was a typical September day in Jacksonville, cooler in the mornings, but still muggy. These people didn’t care though and their clothing was as different as the massive amount of cars parked along the side of the road.
It was Sunday, September 16th, 2001. What felt like the entire city of Jacksonville had come together, to church, to find a reason, any reason for what we all witnessed during that week, perhaps the darkest, in modern history. We managed somehow to find a parking spot in the church parking lot. When we got inside, a firefighter from the Jacksonville Fire Department was directing people to different rooms, because the main sanctuary reached it’s capacity. The rest of the people would watch the service via satellite.
We found our seats up in the very top corner of the balcony. It was the only time John ever went to church with me. I remember looking across the audience and it was like standing in front of a mirror, we were all devastated; and we all came to this place to try to make sense of all of it. We did not know much, but the one thing we did know is we were not only Americans, but we were citizens of the world. We were citizens of a world who were just as devastated as we were; and we all understood that their were plenty of citizens of other countries that died that horrible, beautiful September morning.
The music was filled with Hope. Really, it was all music. The pastor walked onto the stage and the church was silent; almost uncomfortably so, except his silence brought great comfort because it was good to know that even the pastor didn’t have an answer. As it turned out, being together was what we wanted. There were people there from every subset of our society. That day, we were all human beings, with 10 bodily systems, 206 bones, 2 lungs, a brain and a heart that was shattered. There was not a single person in that building that did not realize that our lives and our country had changed forever, it would never be the same. I think that was one of the hardest parts of all of it. The unknown was aplenty only outdone by massive communal fear. We were painfully aware that the America we knew had been shoved to it’s knees. So, American’s did what American’s did back then, we came together as a group of people; a group of people occupying a beautiful, but severely flawed country.
We all know “where we were” on September 11th, 2001. I was in a meeting. One of my employees interrupted our meeting “you gotta come see this a plane just hit the World Trade Center”. John and I looked up at him a little annoyed, as I don’t think the gravity of a statement like that can sink in when you are in the middle of a meeting. We must have given him some “go away” signal, because he shut the door and left. Just a few minutes later, he came back and told me that my sister was on the phone and told him to get me out of the meeting. I followed him and picked up the phone in John’s office where he had a TV. Jeff already had the TV on and flames were pouring out of the first tower; as soon as I picked up the phone, the second plane hit the tower. We stood there shocked. We stayed at the office long enough to see both towers fall; we sent everybody home and turned on the TV. We didn’t turn it off for weeks. As many of you did, we tried to get back to work; that is something human beings are good at, standing back up, even after being sucker punched. There were many discussions as this was opening weekend for the NFL. Many suspected that games would be cancelled as 80,000 people in 15 stadiums around the country seemed like breeding ground for another attack. But, it was decided that they would play football. I will never forget watching the Jaguars that Sunday, I don’t even know who they played or if they even won. All I know is that as our national anthem was played there was not a dry eye in the house. I distinctly remembering standing up in my living room with my hand over my heart. Football brought us together right after we all went to church.
The days and weeks that followed had us all watching the news almost around the clock, especially those first few days as there was some hope for survivors. I remember voicemails from people on the planes being played on the news. I remember our president standing on top of that pile in New York City. I remember this was America where we were ONE. We all understood that we are as different as we are alike; but we are Americans, and while the basic economic unit in a society is the family; we understood we were groups of that unit who just wanted our America back. We understood then and we understand now that we are not perfect. We are far from it. But all of that got set aside for just a little while. We learned (are learning) to live in a post 9/11 America, which for those of old enough understand it is a very different America.
I have had a life long love affair with New York City. I have been there through every phase of the rebuild. Something about that city captures my heart. It isn’t Times Square, it isn’t Broadway; it isn’t 5th Avenue, it’s the people. If you sit on a park bench in New York City, in any given hour you will see a person from any demographic you can imagine. It is a city like none other, that is a fact. Years later I stayed on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel where I could look out of the window and stare at ground zero. There was still white dust on some of the buildings. I stood in that hotel room where I had a 180 degree view of New York City and could not stop the tears as the gravity of over 3,000 people dying right there hit me. That city has a piece of my heart and I don’t doubt that it fits somewhere in my future.
But for today, September 10, 2016, 15 years after that horrible day; my wish is that we could come together again like we did that warm September day at that church. I wish we would love each other like we did that day. I wish we would all remember, again, that we are human beings with 10 bodily systems, 206 bones, 2 lungs, a brain and a heart. Somewhere along the way we have lost the unity of that day, ironic since we pride ourselves on being the United States of America. And that, that, is almost as sad as what I will always refer to as the my darkest day on this planet.
For months now, I feel some sort of tug to “do something” yet, I am paralyzed by what that is because the reality is we all have to earn a living, there are bills to pay, and for me a business to lead. Our country is more fractured now than it has been in my lifetime. I was not around for the Civil Rights Movement. I went to school with kids that looked different from me, and to me they were my friends and part of my tribe. There wasn’t racism in my school in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Because let me tell you, a white kid was in the minority in my hood.
I don’t know what it will be, but I am determined to be part of the change that will bring us closer to actually being the United States of America. There are millions today and especially tomorrow that will be reflecting on that day. We all have stories after it too.
That Sunday was the first time I had been in church in 10 years. My decade long stand off with God was done; because while America had been shoved to it’s knees, so had I; and I went to the only place I knew. That Sunday, in that church, was a time in history I can pinpoint that my life changed forever. You see, many of those people were there that one Sunday and maybe a few after that; but many went back to their lives, all changed in some way, but not everybody kept seeking answers from God. I did, and, as it would turn out, it was the beginning of the end of my marriage. Going to church meant I was no longer isolated in my own hell at home. But I would find freedom eventually; as did ground zero almost 10 years later.