"The saddest thing…"

I was at the FGC offices in Philadelphia when the Twin Towers were hit.  We watched together as the first tower burned, believing that it was some kind of freak accident. When the second plane struck, I was incredulous for a while that this could have been intentional. I had a physical response – of astonishment, of sorrow, of grief.  We as staff gathered together in worship, then dispersed, clutching for our families, for sanctuary, for news.

The first day that they opened the airports, I flew to England.  Graham and I had married in the spring, and we had a celebration planned with his meeting and friends. He had flown before the attacks and I was eager to see him. There weren’t many people on the plane; there was a sense of quiet, anticipation and vulnerability. That day it felt true what Utah Phillips always said about planes flying, that we flew through a collective act of faith.

In England everyone I talked to expressed huge compassion for the US, a huge sense of support, good will, a willingness to help. There was anxiety too.  What would the US decide to do in response?

I was four months pregnant and thinking a lot about what this would mean for my unborn child, and for children everywhere. Could the US accept the huge outpouring of support, make a space for grieving and healing? Would the US seek justice or insist on retribution? 

A few months later, after the US had declared war on Afghanistan, Graham and I went to the INS office for the interview to get his green card.  The office was eerily empty; people weren’t showing up for their interviews because they were getting arrested when they did, for no apparent reason other than their skin color or country of origin.  Our lawyer told us about a client of his, a Palestinian, who was accused of supporting a terrorist group.  He could only speak to him once per day by phone and only for ten minutes.  We both felt our white privilege that day, and how we were connected to those not showing up, terrorized by the US government. We went to candlelight protest vigils on the eve of the wars, wrote letters, but felt so vulnerable, powerless to do much to stop the seemingly inevitable retributive violence.

Niyonu Spann was inspired to write a song after Sept 11 that begins, “The saddest thing is that I will do what you have done to me.”  This statement so captures the mess we’re in now. I too have had the impulse to disconnect from those who have hurt me, to see them as less than human, to want for them to feel the way they have made me feel. But this impulse, though very understandable, perpetuates the cycle. How do we respond instead with acknowledgement, with a sense of the humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator? How do we operate from a sense that we create the communities we live in together and can together create a different way of living which operates from the assumption that we are all connected?

Much of AFSC’s work is about this process of working towards truth and reconciliation, towards putting a human face on both those disenfranchised and those in positions of power.  It’s a lot easier to dehumanize someone you have never met or spoken with.

Some of the recent work AFSC has done to tell such stories includes:

  • The Windows and Mirrors traveling exhibit, which consists of more than 45 large scale paintings by artists from all over the country that memorialize Afghan civilian casualties.  The exhibit also includes images collected from Afghan high school students by Dr. Zahir Wahab, a professor at Lewis and Clark College, who asked young Afghans to draw images from their daily reality.
  •  In Denver, AFSC staff helped recent immigrants to tell their stories using digital storytelling techniques. The North Carolina office also invited immigrants and refugees to tell their stories.
  • AFSC co-sponsored the “If I had a Trillion Dollars” contest inviting youth to make videos describing how they would use a Trillion Dollars, if it weren’t used to fund wars.
  • Youth have been meeting in AFSC’s San Francisco office this Spring and Summer learning to make videos in preparation for an ambitious storytelling project that will collect stories of undocumented youth struggling to “make it” in the U.S. They hope to gather 67 such stories from around the country. An exciting piece of that project was launched recently when these youth, with the support of many others, finished a large mural on the outside of the Quaker Meetinghouse building where our offices are housed.  The mural depicts the same struggles. 

These efforts to build bridges between people within communities, to offer safe spaces for people to tell their stories and venues for them to be heard are central ways that AFSC works to interrupt the cycle of violence and foster communities in which all feel welcome.

Please feel free to share your stories here in response.