(The following is a copy-and-paste of what I wrote on September 11, 2006, thinking back to September 11, 2001. Last night I was discussing with friends where each of us was on that day, and decided to repost this description of my unique experience on September 11, 2001.)
I was a Mormon missionary in the former U.S.S.R from 2000-2002. My time was spent in areas reasonably close to the city of Moscow. From July 2001 until February 2002, I was in the wonderful and beautiful city of Minsk, which is the capital of the Republic of Belarus.
There are many different kinds of Mormon missionaries. The ones most familiar to most people are the guys in white shirts and ties, dark suits, with little black nametags that go from door to door proselyting. What many people don’t know is that there are also missionaries whose time is spent working on family history/geneology, some who work at church historical sites as tour guides or landscapers or any number of other things, some who work as humanitarian aid workers in places where there is significant need, and several others.
Most of my two year mission was spent as your standard nametag-wearing door-knocking proselyting missionary, but while in Belarus, I was a humanitarian aid missionary. One of the things that we did as humanitarian aid missionaries was travel around to schools, day cares, camps, hospitals, and other places where there were large groups of children, and put on puppet shows about the consequences of alchohol and tobacco use.
On September 11, 2001, we did a couple of these puppet shows at a facility of some sort just outside of Minsk. I don’t really remember if it was a hospital or a camp; it may have been a children’s sanitarium or other long-term recovery facility for sick children (This place was notorious for having rather rambunctions and ill-behaved children, so I’m not sure how sick they really were).
These puppet shows were scheduled for the afternoon and early evening. We met at our office with our driver, Joseph, and headed out to do our shows, which were uneventful. Arriving back at the office, I got into the elevator with one of the large prop boxes and headed up to the 7th floor to drop off the props at the office.
And then the world changed.
The elevator door opened on the 7th floor, and as the elevator was right across the hall from the office, the people in the office heard it open. My good friend Michael Trousdale, another humanitarian aid missionary, was in the office at the time. He ran out and began babbling about an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. My first thoughts were of the July 28, 1945 accident at the Empire State Building, when a small plane crashed into the building causing minimal damage and killing 14 people – a tragedy to be sure, but not worthy of the kind of hysterics I was seeing from Michael.
Through some questining that seems rather heartless in retrospect, I discovered that it was not, in fact, a small plane, but rather two very large airliners. It was also not likely an accident as the 1945 incident was, but appeared that the two jets had been deliberately flown into the towers. I went into the office.
On the television in the office I saw the horrifying images that we have all seen one time too many. The first tower had already fallen. The office workers and missionaries in the office sat, horrified, staring at the television. Another missionary arrived soon with the other prop box, then two more missionaries and Joseph. This last group had barely arrived when the second tower collapsed and fell.
Being an expatriate at such times is an experience that’s difficult to describe. We’ve all seen news footage on television that is being taken from a local source in some other country. We hear the reporter speaking in a foriegn tongue we don’t understand, with a translator speaking over them and bringing us the news in our language. This was the same experience, except the local foriegn channel was CNN, and the unfamiliar language being dubbed and translated was English.
As the next infamous hour unfolded, I wasn’t sure how to react. My homeland had been attacked. Terrible things had happened in New York. NEW YORK! And Washington D.C. And Pennsylvania. Those places were all so close to home.
But home was so far away.
I’d been in Russia and Belarus for over a year. Those places really felt like home, and the tragedies on American soil felt like they had happened somewhere else to someone else. While I was shocked and horrified by what had happened, and felt the pain that all good people should feel when evil wins a battle in the eternal war, it seemed that emotionally, something was missing. To this day, I’m not sure what it was that I though I should have felt, but I felt a little guilty for not feeling it.
We felt that the event was over by around 9:15 p.m. All of the airplanes in America had been grounded, the three attacks had happened (I think we’d heard of the Pennsylvania crash as well, but I’m not sure of that), and it appeared no more could happen. As a rule as missionaries, we were to be home by 9:30 each evening, so we headed our seperate ways (nevermind that we also weren’t supposed to watch T.V…. Something about extenuating circumstances and all that….). I lived with my roomate, Matt Millett, about three blocks from the office, and we walked back to our apartment that night.
Belarus is not a country that’s particulary friendly to the United States. At least that’s true politically. The great experience of September 11, 2001 was my realization that national borders and cultural and language barriers are easily crossed and overcome by the fact that we’re all part of the great human family. Our faces were known in the neighboorhood where we lived – people knew who we were. They knew that Matt and I were Americans. As we walked home that night, political unfriendliness melted away as person after person stopped us on the sidewalk and told us of the pain they felt at what had happened to our country. They said how sorry they were. They said that no nation – not even America – deserved to be attacked like that. They said that we’re all brothers and one brother should never do that to another. They said that they hoped their would be a war on whoever did it, and they hoped Belarussians and Americans would fight together to stop it from ever happening again.
44 years of cold war and we really had no enemies among those wonderful people.
There is a certain heirarchy of leadership among missionaries. It helps keep things organized. District leaders supervise a handful (maybe 6-10) of missionaries. Zone leaders supervise a handful of districts. Presidents supervise a handful of zones, which constitute a “mission.” I was a zone leader at the time. Geographically, my zone was the entire country of Belarus. Not long after we got home, one of the president’s personal assistants called to make sure that we knew what had happened, and to give us some instructions. Interestingly, much of the news that he gave was actually not true. He told us that in addition to the attacks in New York and Washington, many other airplanes had crashed, and a couple had even been shot down. Of course, such speculation was very common in the days following, but it ultimately only served to lessen the severity of what actually happened: “Oh, only four airplanes crashed? I understood there were nine! Four is so much better than nine.”
The instructions he gave, on the other hand, came straight from the church leadership in Salt Lake City, and were good advice, I think. We were told to avoid conspicuously American places like the embassy or McDonald’s until further notice (McDonald’s was later taken off the forbidden list – unfortunately). We were to be more cautious in who we told that we were Americans (most Americans are mistaken for Germans when they speak Russian – some of us had developed good enough accents that people mostly thought we were from another part of the Russian speaking world).
Soon after that, came another phone call. This one from the American Embassy, with better information on what had happened, a list of emergency numbers in case anything should happen in Belarus, etc… They called me because I was the zone leader. I’m not sure how they knew that, as I had never told them. They asked me to relay that information to the other missionaries.
I called the district leaders and passed on the instructions we’d been given along with the best patch-together I could manage of the news I’d heard from Moscow and from the Embassy. Of course by doing this I just became another spreader of misinformation. Again, at least the instructions were good.
Over the next several days, the pattern of people approaching us on the street to offer their condolences continued. Other missionaries from around our mission shared similar experiences. I was further convinced that we had no enemies among those people – only their governments.
In retrospect, it’s easier to analyze what happened that day. As I conclude this post however, I’d like to share what I felt on that day, as I wrote it in my journal:
…We arrived at Sofia’s office after a puppet show, just in time to see the news broadcast of the World Trade Center attack. What an infamous day! We all huddled around the TV for about two hours watching the news. It was odd to watch it in Russian – it made it all so…foriegn. I don’t feel fear, but I’m apprehensive about the future of my beloved America. I have learned on my mission to appreciate America – her freedoms, her liberties, and her opportunities. God bless America.
And today, on September 11, 2006 (And 2010!), I pray again, may God bless America.