A Soap Box at Ground Zero

As I walked the perimeter of what was once the Twin Towers, it seemed that at every corner, I was handed a pamphlet or tract, which explained in mere pages how I could be saved from an eternity in hell by simply confessing with my mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. After receiving more than a handful of these messages of hope, I began to politely decline them, assuring the well-meaning evangelists that I had already met Him. Most of them were friendly, compassion glazed over their eyes, youths in red vests proclaiming that prayer changes things, making me wonder if the Taliban, or whoever actually performed this heinous deed, prayed too.
But I have to say that I was rather proud of my Christian heritage. As I watched New Yorkers walking the sidewalks with paper dust masks on their faces and smelled the lingering asbestos and concrete in the air – that stagnant smell of decimation as a constant reminder that you, too, could have been in that building – I was proud that these people came to this area, miles from their homes, to share a message that has offered them hope through their struggles. It’s quite beautiful actually – a loving expression of faith to those who may be suffering. That is, until one of them spoke.
I had been walking for blocks, on the fringe of the spectacle, past orange barricades, every road cordoned off by the boys in blue, seeing glimpses of the wreckage I had previously only heard of on the radio and read about in magazines. This was Ground Zero. This was where the world had changed, and America was forced to grasp for hope wherever She could find it.
The crowd grew thick in a certain area, as tourists snapped photos and raised hand-held video cameras over their heads to better capture the travesty turned attraction, and a loud voice rose from the crowd.
“The only hope for America is the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not believe in false prophets. Jesus is the way. Mohammed is not the way. Confucius is not the way. Buddha is not the way. These are all false prophets. The only hope for America is through the Holy Scriptures of Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
There was more, but only the same said differently. And my pride in the mercy of those who cared was vanquished by shame in the pride of the proselytizer because I knew full well that I had played the role of both. And as I saw the looks of disgust of those around me at the arrogance of the prophet, I knew that every pamphlet of love they held in their hand was no longer worth the paper it was printed on. This one man, in a boisterous show of aggressive campaigning, nullified all good work that the others had done, assuring that no sane mind who heard his voice wanted anything to do with a religion that would breed such a contemptible display in the face of adversity. It was the very difference between the popular notions of a follower of Christ and a modern day Christian. Those who came to tend to the sick, those who saw others as equals in need of real help- fellow players in this game of life who are just trying to figure out the methods of play. Those who care as Jesus did, who follow his example and meet the needy where they are, carrying them along with a still, small voice, these are the followers of Christ.
And those who have become so regimented in their beliefs, who saw this trip to Ground Zero as the ordained opportunity to prove that they were right and that their way to personal fulfillment was indeed better than everyone else’s, who saw this tragedy as a way to fill pews and raise membership, as the perfect chance to let the world know that the Lord is vengeful and to follow a path to peace that you may have been following since you were a child is most assuredly wrong if your dogma does not match his, this is what is all too often known as a Christian.
And, often, there are subtle blends of the two.
As the prophet roared on with his cautionary tales of doom – the assurance that what he had come to agree with was most absolute truth, and whatever other ideas or beliefs some might find to bring peace to a weary heart are misguided and wrong – he continued to enrich the stereotype of the religious right. And I was humbled to notice that I, on many occasions, more than I’ve yet come to admit, have been exactly like him. And, often, I still am.
I don’t want to call these people Christians. Many people who I love call themselves Christians and don’t want to be associated with this type. Let’s call this breed – the soap box preachers, the ones most consider hate mongers, these anti-Christians – let’s call them “the unfocused followers.” Or we could just call them jerks.
So I, like so many others around me, tuned the jerk out for someone more hopeful, a local street artist who, with a few cans of spray paint, some saucers, and newspaper, created a ten dollar work of art in just under five minutes – a reverent reminder of the lives that were lost, and a great souvenir of your trip to the Big Apple. And as people whipped tens out, he had a stack of paintings ready, paying his rent in less than ten minutes. That was my lesson on life in the city. This survival-of-the-fittest mentality that has most every shop in this city selling posters and memories of the towers that were and the tragedy that took them, capitalizing on tragedy because you’ve got to be strong.
It’s the energy I felt when I drove down Broadway, as lights flashed through Times Square – the bustle of the subway and the hustle of the streets. The harsh truth is that in a city like this, there is not much time to heal from even the most catastrophic of injuries. There are jobs to be done. There is money to be made. Life must go on. We must continue to create. We must continue to make a living. And sometimes, no, every time, we must make the most of a bad situation. Healing must come quickly, for there’s just not much time to mourn. Dry your eyes fast ‘cuz the devil won’t wait.

This is an excerpt of The Rucksack Letters by Steve McAllister. Buy your copy of the eBook on Amazon.com.


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