I remember a trip to New York City in November of 2001. I rode past hundreds of signs with three basic messages: thanks and gratitude to the fire fighters and law officers, heart-wrenching pleas for information about lost/missing loved ones, and hate messages against a slew of foreigners. These three emotions defined the national angst — mostly, it was hard to put a finger on the exact root. Fear, anger, loss, devastation, confusion, paranoia — an unfortunate and volatile cocktail. In Nashville, for some reason, locals decided to terrorize Hindu families in response to the 9/11 attacks. I rode in a New York taxi with a young Arab driver, and all I could see was hate reflected in his eyes in the rearview mirror. I began thinking of all the ways that “those people” hate in broad, generic terms, and drifted into my own irrational stereotyping, when suddenly we found ourselves stuck in gridlock. Time passed, and passed, and passed some more. I attempted to strike up some inane chit-chat. I asked if he lived in New York and for how long, family, interests — he answered in monosyllables. I kept trying, and he snapped, “Look, sir, do not pretend you have any interest in me at all. You do not like me, so you do not have to speak to me!”
I was a little shocked and asked why he thought I didn’t like him. He glared at me with intense eyes, “No one here likes me anymore. You all think I am an evil person.”
I stammered, “I don’t think that. I have no reason to think that.”
“No one has a reason to think that! I have done nothing. I love America. It is my home. And now I dream daily of leaving it. You are all hateful people,” he almost yelled.
I began to see pain through the anger. “Have people blamed you for what happened in September?”
“They blame everyone from the Middle East. The best look at us with suspicion; the worst throw things and spit and call us horrible names,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m truly sorry. There are so many hateful, petty, ignorant people — who really don’t mean any harm — who make things worse for everyone. I can’t ask you to forgive people who aren’t willing to forgive you. I’m just sorry you’ve been a victim.”
“Not just me. My wife and my children. We cannot leave our apartment without someone shouting at us or throwing rocks of rotted food. This is our life now.”
We talked some more, and it came out that I am a clergyperson. Almost all the good will and healing we managed was erased in an instant.
“You Christians are the worst,” he said. “Most just call us names, but you are the worst. You condemn and revile and tell us we will burn in hell for all time. I have never known true hate until I met Christians.”
We talked some more, but we never connected at a harmonious level again. My faith became a barrier, because my driver’s experience of Christian witness was anger, judgement, condemnation, accusation and prejudice.
My fervent wish was two-fold: first, that this man could know that “Christians” are not of one mind and practice. Second, I wished that so many Christians didn’t confuse hate, violence and bigotry with “Christian love.” We are known by our fruits, but many of our “fruits” are “nuts.”
As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 dawns, my mind returns to that cab ride. Were another attack to happen today, would we have learned from the last experience not to misjudge people who had nothing to do with the tragedy? Would we be kinder to people who were different, without giving into our baser, irrational and immature instincts? Has the church of Jesus Christ done anything to make us smarter, kinder, more tolerant, more discerning, less judgmental? Are we better for the experience, ten years after?
I look at our current tensions and debates within The United Methodist Church, and I must confess that I do not find much to be hopeful about. We can’t speak civilly and respectfully to one another within the fellowship. How in the world might we speak with grace to those whom we don’t know or understand. We are so ready to take offense and be intolerant. A truly life-changing event happened just a decade ago, and I wonder if we have learned anything.
A month ago, I spoke with a small group about meeting the needs of impoverished families in the Milwaukee area. Many spoke with passion about the overwhelming needs, and I said that our communities could only begin to address them if we worked ecumenically and inter-faith. A hush fell over the group. Finally one said, “Well, we’d better work with Christians. We wouldn’t want the Muslims involved.”
I asked why not.
A pastor raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, you know… they’re MUSLIMS.”
I said, “No, I don’t know.”
He said, “Muslims? Terrorists!”
Ten years have passed. Ten years to learn. Ten years for the church to teach. Ten years for the church to lead. Ten years for the church to heal. A decade later, where are we?