One of my favorite gospel passages is Matthew 10:42 where Jesus says, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, truly I tell you, that person shall by no means lose his reward.” It’s a reminder that acts of compassion don’t have to be grand gestures. They can be simple expressions — what St. Teresa of Calcutta called doing “small things with great love.”
Matthew’s gospel and Mother Teresa’s words kept returning to me as I watched the 20th anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Later, I came across a post someone placed on Instagram:
“Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim the spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”
A question that continually comes up is how did the solidarity Americans felt back then devolve into the intractable divisions the country is experiencing today? How is it that twenty years later, some of our own citizens attacked the very target that the September 11 terrorists failed to destroy — the U.S. Capitol?
A livestreamed conversation on Instagram between two friends affected in different ways by 9/11’s tragic events helped me gain some perspective. Kerri Kelly is a social activist whose stepfather Joseph Leavey, a New York City fire fighter, died at Ground Zero. Valerie Kaur is an author and filmmaker who began documenting hate crimes after the terror attacks.
Kelly’s stepfather was making his way to the 78th floor of south tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed. In his final radio transmission — preserved at the Ground Zero museum -–he told the men in his unit on the floor above, “I’ll be right up.”
Kaur’s activism began when Arizona gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first person to die as a result of a post-9/11 hate crime. His assailant later described himself as “a patriot.”
Sodhi wasn’t Moslem. He was a Sikh, a follower of a religion that holds violence is to be used only in self-defense and to fight against oppression.
Kelly maintains that the pervasive fear that gripped the country after 9/11 — the turning inward and against outsiders and the rush to war — robbed families like hers as well as the nation of the opportunity to properly grieve. Our national response was to meet violence with violence.
“You can’t grieve and be preparing to kill someone at the same time,” Kelly said.
The September 11 attacks damaged our confidence in U.S. invincibility. The aftermath accomplished something even more enduring: it destroyed a part of the American soul.
Can we ever get back what we lost? I believe we can. I believe in the immortality of the soul. If the soul is immortal, it can be repaired. But how?
The Catholic peace organization Pax Christi USA proposes a way forward. In its statement on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, it asks us to respond to conflict using non-violent means, “knowing that war is always a defeat for humanity and for our common home.”
That surely is the lesson of Vietnam, and more recently, of the fall of Afghanistan to the very powers we fought a 20-year war to eliminate.
“We have witnessed firsthand how the manipulation of grief and anger suits the business interests of those who invest in war and conflict,” the Pax Christi statement says.
“We have seen where vengeance and retaliation lead and who is sacrificed — hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis; those (Americans) who were sent to fight; the vulnerable and impoverished in the U.S. whose needs are dismissed in favor of financing war.”
Human dignity, the statement concludes, calls us “to reject that path and seek out creative, life-giving paths.”
As Kerri Kelly says: fighting another war isn’t going to save us. “Only we can save each other.”
As we move past the 20th anniversary of 9/11, can we try even harder than usual to engage in small acts of service and random acts of kindness? Perhaps it means something as simple as Matthew’s gospel suggests, giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person.
As the Instagram post I saw reminds us, it is compassion that best honors those who died, whether on September 11, 2001 or in the 20 years that followed.
Maybe, just maybe, we can slowly begin to reclaim a sense of unity in our country and repair that part of the soul we lost.
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