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9-11-01 Dispatches

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The Calvin Alumni Association has gathered the first-hand accounts, reflections and stories of Calvin alumni and professors who were affected by the tragedies of September 11, 2001. Stories told in Spark are included here; read through this page or skip to a particular story: Deirdre Mingey's account tells of her reaction as a teacher at Mustard Seed School, less than a mile from the World Trade Center. There is also an account of Mark DeVries' trip to Ground Zero as a volunteer psychologist. David Bradford describes a photographer's response. Calvin professors David Crump reflects on the will of God; Bert deVries on Middle East relationships; Charles Farhadian on Islamic tradition; Laura Dehaan on the effects on children; and Jim Bradley on his experience in Washington D.C. and the changes there. Finally, Calvin professor Doug Koopman relates his first-hand account of traveling to Washington D.C. on the morning of September 11.

The Responding to Tragedy web site contains some of the first stories we received after these events. Here Jill (Truc) Bui shares her personal account of her escape from the 70th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. Dirk Pruis also shares his initial thoughts from his office just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. And an excerpt from Chaplain Herman Keizer's journal describes the immediate impact at the Pentagon.

Responding to Tragedy
Prayer requests from the Calvin community, Calvin events held in response to 9-11, and more alumni news are available on this web site.

Campus closing
Calvin closed on Sept. 21 in response to a threat phoned in to campus.

Your response
Send your stories or comments to spark@calvin.edu or submit them for the web page.

 

By Deirdre Mingey '87

Our school is not more than a mile away from the World Trade Center. Hoboken is directly across the Hudson River from it, and my students and I watched a lot of what happened from our window. Hoboken really is a dormitory community for Manhattan - it has 40,000 residents but is only a mile square. Several students have parents that work in the WTC. Obviously, everyone is feeling the effect in a powerful way, but our school is thankful to have all the parents and students safe.
I began school on Tuesday morning as usual - with morning meeting and prayer, then a return to my library classroom. As soon as I had my students quieted, I heard the helicopters, which usually is a sign there's a water main break or a traffic jam. I tend to look in the direction of it. Outside the windows were the two towers, smoking. The hole in the side was terribly dramatic-I actually made a little gasp. Then several children looked out and then ran to the window. We watched for a few moments, then came together for prayer.

I told the students that the administration would let us know soon what happened, so we should go back to our seats. But with several children asking to look out the window, we finally gave up on math and had a conversation about what it might mean - at that point we were thinking it was just a fire - and what the bombing in 1993 meant.

At the same time, the school was putting together a communication plan for parents and students. Soon, the secretary asked for one of my students. She was called home, so we thought maybe it was worse than a fire. Then we noticed the second hole. The rest of the school was pretty much functioning as normal, as mine is the only classroom with a view of the towers.

Parents began to come to pick up children almost immediately - one parent was on the ferry to Manhattan, saw everything, and turned around and came back. The television went on in the staff room. The students really were fine, even calm. We finally got a note telling us what happened and to tell kids in a way that was developmentally appropriate - the kindergartners heard it was an accident while the seventh graders were watching television coverage. Parents were coming in tears, having just made it out of that area, and were very upset. The administrators told them to take a minute to collect themselves because everyone at the school was doing okay. Parents and children were reunited in such a beautiful way. One of the parents is a pastor. She asked if she could stay and meet with anyone who wanted to.

After the towers came down, my kids were much more emotional. Some began to cry. I decided we needed to be out of the classroom after that. We had a beautiful long time of prayer. We stayed in the building because of the rumors that hijacked planes were still out.

At 3 p.m., all of the kids were picked up, all parents we knew about were accounted for, and we had worship and prayer.
Hoboken was used as a triage transport place - even the school's basement was going to be used as a triage spot for overflow, but there were so few live bodies that nobody ever came. We turned it into a shelter for people in the area who needed a place to stay. We had Wednesday off because the plan was for Hoboken to be for emergency vehicles only. On Tuesday we had made a basic plan for Thursday morning worship. Kids came to school, teachers met them and spoke with them, they heard who was worried, who had concerns, who had someone missing. There were a lot of personal stories, and care for the emotional needs of children. We had the children write prayers with different emphases - transportation, rescue workers, families - a long list of requests from which each class would take one and focus on. The entire school came together, read some beautiful scripture passages, sang, and read the written prayers. We had a short worship message on the fact that Christ is with us.

As more and more people are reported missing, as children are walking through the streets and seeing signs of people who are lost or gone, really interesting conversations happen in our daily meetings. We're also spending some time writing about it, and also had a clothing drive, and we decided to write letters to the fire department and police department to offer encouragement. The older kids are writing to those who are grieving. Also, each class has received a picture of the Trade Towers to hang in the classroom. My students have walked over to ours at various times alone or in twos to look at it. It is small and fits in their hands. It is touching to see them hold it in silence.

There are little reminders of the disaster - a week later smoke from the WTC could be smelled in the classroom, with the wind in just the right direction. I'm really very proud of the way the school handled it. We've heard really awful things about other schools - some sent all the kids home and told them to call the police if their parents didn't come home so the police could bring them back to school. To have our school respond from a faith-based perspective with so much care and intentionality - it's been a moving experience.

 
 

By David Crump
Calvin professor of religion and theology

Does God will terrorist acts? The Reformed confession of "divine sovereignty" (however the term is defined) draws enquiring minds to such questions like moths to the flame. Hopefully, the answer will not scorch us too severely.
If only finding answers to questions were as easy as asking them. By responding "Yes" to this one, we apparently make God a mass-murderer. But, then, saying "No" seems to leave us stranded alone on a run-away world headed towards self-destruction. Let me suggest that the Biblically warranted answer is to confess ignorance and to bite my tongue in humility, not as an evasive maneuver but as a silent statement of faith.

The Bible is more interested in depicting reality than in explaining it. We are offered the portrait of (1) a sovereign Creator who (2) endows the Imago Dei with a will to choose. In giving humanity the ability to decide, God apparently limited his willingness to coerce. Now, as fallen creatures, the gifted artist is not only free to depict beauty but equally free to deface it. Inventive minds might design a new energy efficient light bulb or build a more compact bomb.

Yet, the Bible does make it clear that the choice to do evil is at odds with the divine will. Of this, we can be sure. God did not will Cain to kill his brother Abel. History's first murderer ignored the Creator's warning and deliberately cut down the man whose sacrifice had so recently brought God pleasure (Genesis 4:3-8). Neither did God will the universal, moral decay that eventually "caused him to grieve over humanity's creation, filling his heart with pain" (Genesis 6:6-7).

Having said this, however, we would be mistaken to assume that God could never be the author of disaster. God's pain did not prevent the flood from drowning those same men, women and children for whom he grieved. Ancient Jerusalem was handed over to the horror of Babylonian slaughter as God's punishment for her apostasy. And before making the predictable protest that at least the New Testament brings us a refreshingly merciful God, let's first recall that it was Jesus himself who foretold the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as the heavenly Father's punishment for Israel's rejection of the Messiah.

Apparently, God can - and sometimes does - will national catastrophe.

Here is the problem: we have no way of knowing how to relate contemporary world events to divine intent. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, a political experiment since abandoned by God, now replaced by the global church. No national entity stands in such a relationship with heaven today, and without an Isaiah or a Jeremiah to utter an inspired "thus saith the Lord" not even the most devout saint has the slightest notion of how international tragedies may intersect, parallel or oppose God's plan for salvation-history.

At times, faith requires us to stand still in the dark holding fast to a confession that no longer explains everything but, in the past, has explained enough. My ignorance of possible answers does not mean that they do not exist. It only means that I cannot pick and choose when to exercise trust in God. Sometimes silence, or an admission of ignorance, is the more profound statement of faith. This is not to duck life's challenges but to face them without dissembling.

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Re: Mark DeVries '80

Like most Americans, Mark DeVries '80 experienced a feeling of helplessness in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11.

"Right after it happened I felt anger and frustration over the fact that there was nothing I could do," said DeVries.

So when a week later an opportunity presented itself in which he could do something, it was an easy decision.

DeVries, who is a staff psychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, joined a team of crisis counselors sent to New York to help victims of the tragedy. He flew to New York on September 18 and the next day was as close to Ground Zero as he could get.

"We wanted to see what we knew people would be talking about," he said. "The area was still smoldering and most people were walking around in surgical masks."

The most emotional part of the day though, was walking through Union Square Park, he said. "That was quite an experience. There were a lot of people there, but it was very quiet and solemn. There were missing people posters everywhere and different people had established memorials to their loved ones in their own way."

DeVries then spent a few days working with employees from different companies who either had been in the World Trade Center or near it when the disaster occurred.

"People in New York are dealing with a lot of trauma," he said. "They are experiencing flashbacks and paranoid thinking and many of them have survivor's guilt. I talked to one older women who was evacuating the building when she looked into the face of a fireman going up the stairs. She has a picture of his face etched in her mind."

DeVries came back from the experience with a changed view of New Yorkers. "I had bought into the stereotype of New Yorkers being cranky and in a hurry and what I found was people who were so helpful, so patient and so appreciative."

He also was moved by the incredible outpouring of good. "I really sensed that people have the ability to react to something so evil, so terrible, with proportional amounts of goodness and kindness," he said.

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  By Bert de Vries '60
Calvin professor of history

As a Middle East specialist I have spent most of my adult life in the study of the cultures and histories of the East Mediterranean, particularly that of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Rather than taking that study in an abstract or disinterested way I, and my wife Sally, have engaged the 'people of the land' in decades-long professional and personal relationships, which in many cases include depths of feelings of endearment and mutual love similar to those we share with close relatives. September 11, therefore, brought a special kind of shock to us. For many Americans less familiar with the region, the Middle East became a place of alienation, a mysterious source of violence, that caused people to view Arabs and Muslims "over there" with vaguely defined but real suspicion.

How could we square that with the reality of the hundreds of Jordanian and Palestinian friends known so long and loved so dearly? How could we explain to our Midwest neighbors that those so dear to us are not unusual, or exceptions, but in fact typical of the hundreds of millions of denizens of the Middle East? This has been our special challenge, not just since September 11, but for decades. For what happened September 11 is a strike across a gulf of alienation produced by a lack of understanding, not just by the angry people who have filled the ranks of "al-Qaeda," but by people in general, all of us. Such misunderstanding is not primarily intellectual; rather, I feel it is due to a paucity of personal relationships. Ironically, though we say we now live in a "global village," we have very little direct long-term contact with those outside of our own "local village," whether that be Kandahar or Grand Rapids.

September 11 marks the half-way point of a two-year partnership program, bringing together 15 undergraduates, graduates and professors of two institutions—Americans from Calvin College, and Palestinians from Birzeit University. Superficially, our assignment is development, a study of the long-term availability of water from a West Bank tributary of the Jordan River. But down deep the goal is mutuality, the forming of professional and personal bonds between two diverse sets, Palestinians and Americans, Muslims and Christians. On September 11 we were looking back on five wonderful summer weeks during which we had all been together to share scientific expertise, wilderness camping, military occupation and much more. But above all, we had shared each other, and we had become a close-knit group of friends and colleagues. What we have become to each other is no longer explicable in mere terms of research and development, without scientific rationale or formula. In short, we know and love each other so well, we could never dream of blowing things up in each others' faces!

I write this from Amman, on the eve of crossing to the West Bank to meet with my Palestinian partners in Ramallah, in the shadow of Israeli tanks, with the bombing of Afghanistan background noise on our television. Our challenge? Well, to plan the second half of our project—report writing, publication another summer together for the final field studies. But down deep we know what is really at stake—the maintaining of those precious relationships so spontaneously built before September 11. For we know, all of us, that keeping those relationships will be a building block in the restoration of the peace in our "global village" after September 11.

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By Charles Farhadian
Calvin professor of religion and theology

As the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 A.D., Augustine asked, "Why is this happening to us?" The profoundly disturbing events of September 11 forced the same question upon America, the West, and the world, as terrorists attacked potent symbols of America's identity. A new vocabulary emerged as media pundits educated the world about the covert strategies that eventuated in the tragic events. Weaponized anthrax, antibiotic Cipro, bioterror, bin Laden, Islamic jihád emblazoned in the minds of most Americans - these terms connoted an outcome of the hybridization of terrorism and the fervor of religious militancy.

The Muslim justification or disdain for the events of September 11 turns on an understanding of the salient Islamic notion of jihád, a broadly interpreted concept implying either "spiritual" or "physical" struggle. In its 1969 founding charter, The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which includes 56 Muslim countries in its membership, declares that jihád is "the duty of every Muslim, man or woman, ordained by the shari'ah [Divine Law of Islam] and glorious traditions of Islam." Yet when referring to the events of September 11, the OIC issued a formal statement saying, "that such terror acts are opposed to the tolerant and divine message of Islam." The OIC's statement sends a clear message that terror invigorated by a devotion to militant Islamic jihád secures little support from the majority of Muslims worldwide. Muslims themselves are debating the most fundamental ideas of Islam under these new world conditions. Sadly, no matter how Muslims interpret jihád, it is doubtful that there will ever be an end to violence done in the name of religion, Muslim or otherwise.

So why is this happening to us? What will the future be like? No answer will be satisfactory or complete because anything tied up with religion is not easily untangled. In the 16th century, John Calvin wrote that "[God] determined and fixed the bounds that men cannot pass… As all future events are uncertain to us, so we hold them in suspense, as if they might incline to one side or the other. Yet in our hearts it nonetheless remains fixed that nothing will take place that the Lord has not previously foreseen." We can take solace in the midst of malevolent interruptions by recognizing that God's sovereignty provides a firm foundation for faith and hope.

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By Doug Koopman
Calvin professor of political science

I woke up the morning of September 11 at my home in Grand Rapids, early enough to catch a flight that landed at Reagan National Airport at 8:40 a.m. I planned to make a 9:30 meeting in downtown Washington, D.C., to work on a set of compromises to move the President's faith-based initiative through the Senate.

The flight to DC was uneventful, but as I was walking through the Reagan terminal a panel of television screens on my left were all showing smoke spewing from one of the World Trade Center towers. I stopped a minute to watch and listen. At that time only one tower was hit, and no one seemed to know any details. I hurried on down to the Metrorail system, figuring I would get details later. The portion of the Metrorail I was using runs from the airport underground alongside the Pentagon, and then pops above ground to cross the Potomac River before dipping underground again and proceeding north to downtown. I must have been at the Pentagon stop about 9:15, arriving at the meeting site-an office building one block northeast of the White House, at 9:30.

Now things started to happen fast. My wife called me at 9:32 on my cell phone, worriedly asking me if I was safe. Embarrassed I had not called her immediately upon landing as I usually do, I said "of course." She told me the second World Trade Center tower had been hit, and to be careful. I rushed to the building where my meeting was to begin, arriving at the top floor just as a plane hit the Pentagon. A television was turned on, and we had the eerie experience of seeing the same pillar of smoke on the screen and out our window. The television news was frenetic-reporting the possibility of another plane headed for Washington, a bomb threat at the State Department (a few blocks west), and evacuation orders at the Capitol (fifteen blocks east) and the White House (whose roof we were overlooking at that very moment). The building manager told us the building was closing immediately, leave now, and don't use the elevators. Our group agreed to reconvene in one hour at some offices approximately a mile and one-half north. It was a motley crew briskly descending 11 flights of stairs-among them a former mayor of Philadelphia, a wealthy philanthropist, Asian and Hispanic kitchen help, and a Calvin professor all equal now in our desire to seek safety and not knowing if it was possible.
The streets were chaos. Everyone with a car was heading out, but uncertain of which way to go. The foot traffic was more unified. With potential targets west, east and south, the logical direction was north, where I was headed anyway. Sidewalks and streets moved together. Anyone with a cell phone was trying to call out; no one was getting through. The dominant street sounds were police whistles and honking horns; the only sounds in the air were fighter jet engines and military choppers. Someone said a World Trade Center tower collapsed; another said both of them had. A plane was headed for the White House; then mysteriously shot down. I wondered what was going on, and why I wasn't in Grand Rapids.

It took until mid-afternoon to contact my wife again, to let her know I was fine and that I was staying with friends north of the city until I could figure out a way home. By that time my initial impressions had been formed by a flurry of facts and images, molded in the heat of anxiety. Terrorists had committed an act of war against the United States, deliberately picking its most prominent economic, political and military symbols. I was not, fortunately, at the center of the attacks, but close enough to know the world was now different. Foreign, military and domestic policies would all have to be rethought. Our security, at least our temporal feelings of security of living in this nation, were gone.

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By Laura Dehaan
Calvin professor of psychology

One of my first thoughts while watching the horrific events of September 11 was "Does Rachel know?" As I feared, my daughter learned of the attacks in school and tearfully reported that her teacher's sister was in New York City and probably dead (thankfully this was untrue). Along with so many others, I fumbled to explain the unexplainable to children.

It is natural, even beneficial, for parents to shield their children from the reality of violence or conflict, but this may not always be best. Research tells us that a major factor in how children adjust to crisis is the truthfulness of information they receive. Even infants are experts at discerning emotions from our faces; after that it becomes impossible to hide our anxieties from them. Children quickly fill in the gaps of what we don't tell them from their rich imaginations, inventing realities far worse than the truth (one of Rachel's misconceptions: "We'll never be able to fly again because all the pilots are dead"). More importantly, as Christians, we know that "we are to speak the truth to each other" (Zech 8:16) and "it is the truth that sets us free" (John 8:32).

The good news is that children rely on parents to buffer their fears, and they can experience the realities of terror and war within our safe embrace. Studies indicate children cope best when we remain open to their questions, provide the truth in small doses, frequently seek to uncover their misconceptions and reassure them of their safety.

Could it be that not only did God provide Rachel with parents to help her understand how terribly the world has fallen, but that in His grace, he gave her parents the gift of a five year-old to help us cope as well? My husband and I received much comfort from Rachel's naïve but searing questions: "Just because they did something bad to us, why should we do something bad to them?" and her heartfelt and hopeful prayers: "Please help all the people up in heaven feel better" and "Please let all the bad people get Jesus in their hearts." As hard as it is to share these events with my daughter, I am thankful that, as we grit our teeth and tell the truth, God has given all His children, young and old, the gift of comfort one to another.

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By Jim Bradley
Calvin professor of math and computer science

None of my colleagues at the State Department were killed or injured in the September 11 attack on the Pentagon. But my former boss eloquently summarized what the attack was like for them: "We felt like sitting ducks." When they received word to evacuate the building, "No one needed to be told twice."
Life in Washington has dramatically changed. Security seemed tight when I was there, but my former colleagues tell me it is much tighter now. Also, how people spend their days has changed. For each of the issues I worked with-missile defense, chemical weapons inspections, deterrence and stability-policy alternatives were widely and carefully scrutinized. However, the issues being studied now are different-almost everything has taken a back seat to the war on terrorism.

And yet, in spite of the thoroughness and care that are given to policy studies, mistakes are made. Sometimes, political dogma or an administration's concern for "spin" trump data. Other times, assumptions are mistaken. For instance, a colleague was reflecting one day on the Cold War. He commented whimsically, "You know, we all really believed that the Soviets were ten feet tall."

We need to remember that bin Laden and his associates are not ten feet tall, either. Like many of us, I've been reading the Psalms more lately. I've been struck by how often they encourage us to maintain our trust in spite of the presence of violent and evil men. Psalm 7 says "He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head." This is as true today as it was in the time of David.

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By David Bradford ex'72

David is a New York taxi driver, who for the last ten years has captured New York City photographically through the windshield of his cab. His photos have been collected into a book, Drive-by Shootings (Konemann, 2000). This is his account in words of September 11, 2001 (photos included in the printed Spark, but not available here for copyright reasons.

As a runner, I would often jog from my west side apartment down to the World Trade Towers, touch each one, and race back up West Street, then Hudson, then home.

As a photographer, I've covered the city of New York for more than a decade-its people, its streets and its buildings. New York's buildings are so constant and connected to me. As for the World Trade Towers, when they were hit, I was hit. I felt I had to be there. And I was compelled to witness their suffering with my presence and my camera.

A friend called me on the morning of Sept. 11 to tell me what had happened. I turned on the TV and watched the screen as the second tower was hit. I grabbed my camera and ran to the roof. No vantage point. I ran down six flights and to the street. I picked up three black-and-white rolls of film at a deli and headed for Seventh Avenue. I raced downtown—my feet soon reminded me that I was wearing work boots, not running shoes. Not until Christopher Street did I have a full view of the towers-aflame. Unbelievable. I knew that's what I would see, still shock and horror washed over me. Here was the first group of people that I encountered. Frozen in step and watching in stunned disbelief. But I had to get as close as I could. If I could have touched the towers again, I would have. I ran on.

By Canal, soaked in sweat, I encountered a more palpable human reaction. All faces focused south, some screamed or cried while others stood mute; just looking, looking. The traffic had already been sealed off but being on foot I could run where I wanted. I felt invisible. I ran between the frozen crowds, drawing closer to the destruction. Police were noticeably nervous. They had to respond tactically, not causing panic, and still try to absorb it all themselves. I continued to shoot as I ran south.

Just below Canal I was in a no man's land—no vehicles, eerie silence, only the sound of gravel under my feet as I ran on. I circumvented another barricade at Hudson and Beech Street. I scrambled, moving west to Greenwich and Chambers. I was very close and the sense of panic more evident. Groups of people screaming, unsure of what was to come. Claims of people jumping; that I didn't see. I ventured on to Barclay toward West still shooting, but couldn't get through. I backtrack to West Broadway and up to Park Place and head east. There was a good deal of disorientation and a confusion of people moving in different directions—as if silently drawn near the towers until their fears drove them back. In this confluence I bumped into a stranger and we both turned and simultaneously said, "Excuse me," dumbfounded by our civility.

I could not go farther south, so I crossed east to Park Row, where there was a dam of people making it impossible to move. I grab a couple of shots, one of a man videotaping the scene.

I thrust my arm up with my camera and tried to grab his shot in my lens. I didn't know what I got. I'm still in running mode, jumping and hopping around people, taking shots without looking. I worked my way east and south through Theatre Alley and to Nassau and Fulton, where I turned west to take another shot. Moments later a huge CRACK, like a thunderbolt, sounded. Just after, an enormous rumble underground, increasing in intensity as though at any moment our bodies would split. Then we saw a tidal wave of smoke of roiling smoke coming at us at great speed. We all thought this was a bomb. This is it. Evil itself. People in terror, panic, run toward the East River. I was gripped by stark thoughts: "Run for your life… don't trip. Stay ahead of this. Shoot when you can." We ran as far east as we could, ending at the river, under the FDR and then headed north on our strange post-apocalyptic exodus.
Only later did I understand. The World Trade Towers were dust.

(© 2001 by David Bradford)

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