Less than a month ago, this nation again commemorated the tragedy of September 11, 2001. We saw once again the photos of flames consuming the World Trade Towers, citizens running to escape the conflagration and collapse of buildings, people covering their mouths with handkerchiefs to keep from breathing in the ashes. We recall the anguish of those searching for their loved ones and those who got the terrible news that loved ones were gone.
Amid the smoke, chaos and anguish emerged the stories of those who didn’t flee, those who instead turned back, entering the mouth of terror. As part of the 9/11 memorial services in September a year ago, a female police officer who went back into one of the crumbling World Trade Towers was asked by the person she saved “Why did you do it?” She replied simply, “That’s what we’re here for: We go into it.” Not around it or over it or under it, but “into it.”
This simple but powerful answer called to mind those who “go into it” daily, working to prevent violence, to bring youth back from the edge, to help build thriving communities that don’t produce crime. I have worked in the public sector my entire adult life, first with youth and in community action on the streets of Boston, and then on senior policy levels on the state and federal levels. I have met and worked with thousands, but those who work daily to prevent violence stand out: the officer returning to the mean streets after his or her partner has been shot; the minister holding a sobbing mother after her son has been killed; social workers returning to grim tenements, helping struggling parents parent, street workers working at midnight or one or two in the morning to convince violence-prone youth to stop, that someone cares; teachers laboring in the nation’s toughest schools, refusing to let their kids fail; teenagers who refuse to be cowed by their peers, asserting their refusal to be part of the violence and seeking ways to end it; policymakers changing the public landscape toward prevention because it is both the right and the smart thing to do, whether popular or not.
They all work in the fire. Like the World Trade Center rescuer, they see their work as “going into it” because the need is there. They know there is danger, even death — but they also know that they can make a tremendous difference. Their work is in the fire. They don’t resist it: they go into it.
When India gained its independence from Britain, the continent split violently into Hindu and Muslin factions. Fighting, looting, and killing were rampant. Gandhi was invited to a summit at the ornate Governor’s Palace in New Delhi. Negotiations among the three factions – British, Hindu and Muslim – were intense. Suddenly, it was reported, Gandhi took his tiny bag of possessions, stood up, and started to walk out. “Where are you going? You cannot leave us. Stay,” begged the leaders. Gandhi said, “I am going to Calcutta: that’s where the fire is.”
Gandhi, all those who went into the World Trade Towers to save others, and those who daily reach out to stop violence bring home the message that our nation – indeed our world – needs people who are willing to go into the fire to make us safer and better. Each of them understands that life’s meaning is not found on the mountain top, but on the muddy path — not over, but through, “into” the conflagration.
The prophet Isaiah (Chapter 58) summons each of us to this work and its true reward:
…you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Those who take on the challenge, who go into the fire, are not superheroes. They are people just like the rest of us. Each one of us knows a “fire,” or a “breach,” however small.
May Isaiah and others inspire you to be a repairer of a breach, wherever you may find it.