Monday, September 26, 2011

Canadian Race Track Chaplain Remembers 9/11

I was chaplain at a Canadian race track that summer. People often express surprise when they learn a race track has a chaplain.

"A chaplain, at the race track?" they say. Surprised sometimes because they associate track people (never mind the folk who go to watch the races) with gambling, addiction, personal strife, and so on. Which, of course, are all the reasons why a race track is a great place to be a chaplain, to journey with folks who, like people anywhere else, have experienced pain.

More specifically, I was chaplain for the backstretch community - the people whose lives and jobs centre on the horses whose pedigrees, training, and speed make the races possible. From groomers and trainers to owners and riders (the track term for jockies), all are essential. These "horse" people often follow a circuit, having a track they work at in summer, and a home they return to in the off-months, or another track in a warmer part of the world.

At Assiniboia Downs, our backstretch community included folk from all over the United States, as far away as Florida and Texas, and many places in between.

My summer at the track was coming to a close. Driving along the highway to the track on that bright fall day, I don't remember what was on my mind. CBC was on my radio. And I do recall as though it was yesterday the news flash that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York - "perhaps a Cessna."

Being an aviation nut, I reviewed in my mind how a Cessna could get so far off course, and so out of control, that it would crash into one of the massive towers in lower Manhattan, towers which had become a signature for New York City, along with the Empire State  Building and the Statue of Liberty.

Rolling to a stop in the sandy parking lot at the track, news updates made it clear the plane was far larger than a Cessna. Something was terribly wrong - what wasn't know was just how wrong, or how terrible. This event would become one which, as we saw in years to come, could be said without any trace of hyperbole to be world changing.

I asked at the track admin office if the Americans in our backstretch community were aware of what was happening. I was told most of them were in a manager's offices, watching the tv. I went into the office, introducing myself for the sake of those whom I hadn't met before.

Not much was being said.  We watched in disbelief.  Tension, bewilderment, dismay among the men gathered there, wondering what was happening in their country's largest city. Pictures of a the tower, smoke pouring from its top most floors were shown, along with comment from astonished people on the ground.

Shortly after I arrived, we watched as the second aircraft plunged into the second tower. We sat in stunned silence. A couple of the men started speaking, but could find no end to their sentences.

Tension and bewilderment increased. Fear and shock were palpable - and so was their tell-tale smell, as the event witnessed on the tv in real time triggered instinctive chemical responses in our bodies.

"What is this?" one asked. A general sense of dismay, of incredulity in the face of the seemingly incredible.

"Are we at war?" said another. A question too fearful to contemplate.

When I left the room sometime later, the news was far worse than when I had entered it.

More questions, more fear, and the immediate pain of a few of the people contemplating the possibility that people they loved could have been in the twin towers, or close to them.

I left the track around noon, listening to CBC radio, but I can't remember what was being said although obviously it was about events in New York. And at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. And over a field in Pennsylvania.

My mind was with the Americans back at the track, how it would be for them in the next few days. Some had talked of having family and friends in New York.

Driving to a lunch meeting, I passed the end of one the main runways - already planes lined up on the apron. We didn't get nearly as many aircraft grounded until further notice as did Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 US-bound planes carrying 6.700 were forced to land because US airspace was closed. But the fact that our airport, so far away from New York City, or Washington DC, or that field in Indiana, was looking different in the middle of the day, its ops reflecting events thousands of miles away, set off my own personal sense of fear for the first time that day. The magnitude of this terrorist attack began to solidify in my mind, and with a chilled sense that its ramifications would affect much, if not all, of the world for a long time to come.

My lunch was at a local Indian restaurant with a city psychiatrist and a supervisor from the communty mental health program. Our purpose in meeting was primarily social. Predictably, the conversation focused on the terrorist attacks.

"My sister's child goes to the day care that is right close to the World Trade Centre," said the community mental health worker.

That evening, and in the coming days, we'd learn more about the extent and seriousness of the events brought to a climax on that day which will go down in infamy as 9/11  -  the American abbreviation for the eleventh day of the ninth month. No one in our life time is likely to forget that it was in 2001.

Some days later, members of the race track's backstretch community gathered in the café which adjoins the track's offices. We prayed for those who lost their lives on 9/11, and that their surviving families and friends would find comfort, courage, and strength to grieve well. We remembered the first responders, the brave cops, fire fighters, paramedics - and chaplains - who in the face of danger run the opposite way from most people - going into the places of highest risk to rescue and to care for others.

Often on anniversaries of 9/11 I think of that day back on the track in 2001. I felt honoured that as a chaplain, as a human being, to have been present with our American backstretch community members. I knew there was nothing I could do or say. But years of experience as a chaplain, or as is more often said today, a spiritual care giver, or an existential care giver, have taught me it isn't about saying anything. It is about being present, and about standing with.

And so again this year, I thought of all these things. I wept watching the people name loved ones lost in 9/11 at the official memorial services. My tears flowed as a young boy named his dad, "who I never met, but who I love because he loved the idea of having me."

Within the experiences of 9/11 there are stories which reflect the deepest meanings and expressions of what it is to be fully human, to be righteous - not in some dogmatic, sectarian sense, but in the way of being an embodiment of compassion and wisdom. And, naturally, there are also those stories which draw out the shadow side, our propensities for bitterness and revenge.

After the second world war, which saw the systematic genocide of Jews, and came to be known as the Holocaust, people have picked up the words "never again."

Yet, we have had more genocides. We have had terrorist attacks which snuff out innocent lives. And we have the tyranny of poverty which daily kills thousands of people.

My prayer, my profoundest hope is that one day, when people say "never again," it can be sufficiently comprehensive and well understood that it includes all these things and more, which detract from the innate greatness and potential with which each baby is born.

Though this hope may seem impossible, by working to realize it we honour those whom we remember, the innocents who died, and those who died to save them, their surviving families and friends, the first responders and others who live with debilitating illness as a result of 9/11.

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