Freed from the Smoke and Ashes: Reflecting on Pope Francis’s Service of Prayer for 9/11

By Doris Abdullah

“Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised” (Isaiah 9).

We lined up two by two in rows on Liberty Street in Manhattan to enter onto the Foot Prints grounds where the Twin Towers had once stood. In the line were the families of survivors and those like myself, representatives of our faith communities. As the line began to move you first hear the sounds of the water flowing, and then all eyes beheld the sight of the mighty pool of never-ending, streaming waters.

The Multi-Religious Gathering with Pope Francis held on Sept. 25 at the National 9-11 Memorial Museum World Trade Center was officially labeled “A Witness to Peace,” but will be remembered by me as a multicultural prayer service. A prayer service held in conjunction with more than 500 religious leaders from the New York City area representing most of the world’s religions and spiritual beliefs.

I was personally freed, during the service, from the smell of smoke that has lingered in my nostrils for the last 14 years, by the prayers uttered by my brothers and sisters from the faiths gathered together: Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. My brain had refused to let go of the terrible smells of fires after the Towers fell. The billowing smoke and ashes crossed the waters of Manhattan into my home in Brooklyn for months afterward.

Pope Francis told us that in this place “we weep and we throw away revenge and hatred.” The Young People’s Chorus of New York City sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” We wept as the escalators descended deep, deeper, and still deeper underground to reach the museum’s last level. A cold, not well lit, and uninviting place was filled with memories and memorabilia of what once was.

I wept as the Meditations on Peace began to be recited in sacred tongues, and I wept as I heard the Greek uttering from Archbishop Demetrios: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Bless are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I wept as Imam Khalid Latif prayed in Arabic, and Dr. Sarah Sayeed broke her translation with sobs: “O Allah! You are Peace and all peace is from you, and all peace returns to You. (silence) Grant us to live with the salutation of peace, and lead us to your abode of peace. You are blessed, our Lord, and Exalted, O Owner of Magnificence and Honor!”

I wept with the Hindu prayer from Dr. Uma Mysorekar: “Om…. May he protect us both (gug and disciple). May he cause us to enjoy (the Supreme). May we both work with great energy. May our study become brilliant. May we not hate each other. Om…. Peace, peace, peace. Lead me from unreal to real; lead me from darkness to light; lead me from death to immortality. Om…. Peace, peace, peace.”

I wept with the Buddhist words of Rev. Yasuko Niwano: “Victory begets enmity; the defeated dwell in pain; the peaceful live happily, discarding both victory and defeat. One should not do any slight wrong which the wise might censure. May all beings be happy and secure! May all beings have happy minds! PEACE!”

I wept with the Sikh words of Dr. Satpal Singh: “God judges us according to our deeds, not the coat that we wear: that Truth is above everything, and the highest deed is truthful living. Know that we attain God when we love, and only that victory endures, in consequence of which no one is defeated.”

And I wept with the Jewish Prayer in Honor of the Deceased sung by Cantor Azi Schwartz: “O G-d, full of compassion, Who dwells on high, grant true rest upon the wings of the Shechinah,in the exalted spheres of the holy and pure, who shine as the resplendence of the firmament, to the souls of Victims of September 11th who (have) gone to their eternal home; may their place of rest be in Gan Eden, therefore, may the All-Merciful One shelter them with cover of his wings forever, and bind their souls in the bond of life. The Lord is their heritage, may they rest in peace and us say: Amen!”

In exiting, Pope Francis reminded us to always pray–pray for each other, pray for peace, and pray for him. We hugged and gave the sign of peace to each other before departing upward, and up, until finally we reach the sunshine. I could hear the sound of the water flowing from the memorial pool and these words came into my head: “Come to the waters all who are thirsty and weak. Come to the waters that you may have life.”

— Doris Abdullah is the Church of the Brethren representative to the United Nations.

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