I was a 24-year-old assistant city editor at a little daily paper in Portsmouth, N.H., on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, I sat at my desk, staring at the newsroom TV.
Like so many people, I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center in real time, thinking it was just a replay before I realized the gruesome truth.
“Are you all right?” asked one of our reporters – a kind, middle-aged lady with sons older than me. I guess she had noticed my vacant stare. My firstborn daughter was 5 months old. In that moment, I had this terrible feeling that she would never know the sense of safety and security that I had.
I felt overmatched for my new job. This was probably the biggest news day I would ever see. I was supposed to be a leader among my peers, most of them having years more experience than I did.
I suspected I had gotten the promotion because of the new baby and the very real possibility that I would have to find a better-paying job pretty quickly. I was supposed to help these veteran reporters figure out what to cover and how.
But what did I have to contribute? I went out looking for reaction from the public. I went to a gas station because I figured people were talking to the clerk. People, of course, were in shock. But no reader would need me to tell them that.
At the time, I was attending St. John’s Episcopal Church, whose slate-topped brick cupola served as the focal point for the east end of downtown, near the bank of the Piscataqua. Built on a hilly perch in 1732, it trailed only the Puritan Congregationalists’ North Church, built in 1712 with a 193-foot spire, as the oldest and highest-steepled church in town.
St. John’s, with its Tory connections, could never rival the free church on Market Square for the city’s affection, but what it lacked in democratic symbolism, it made up for in star appeal. A mahogany chair, rescued from a fire that destroyed the original wooden church in 1806, was said to have borne George Washington, himself an Anglican, when he worshipped there in 1789. The church bell, plundered from the French-Canadians in the Siege of Louisbourg in 1745, was damaged in that 1806 fire and recast by none other than Paul Revere.
St. John’s, like so many Episcopal parishes, was a congregation of power and privilege. A new city councilman would soon be elected from among us. But what drew me there were the high ceiling painted with square panels. like windows to heaven; the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Apostle’s Creed inscribed almost two centuries earlier on the wall behind the altar, reminders of how ancient we Christians were; the antique mural of a dove, descending to meet us; the Common Table, a weekly community meal in the fellowship hall for hungry people; the Interfaith Hospitality Network, where we partnered with other churches to use our buildings as rotating shelters for homeless families. It was the worship that took us to another place and the community service that kept us grounded in the here and now.
Still struggling to find my story on 9/11, while my colleagues were interviewing family members of actual victims, even the wife of one of the hijacked pilots who had lived locally, I found out St. John’s would be hosting an interfaith service that night. I wasn’t sure anyone would care. In my 10 months at this paper, my boss had been urging me to write about matters of faith, but I also knew that other staff and some of our readers felt differently – to them, religion was, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, oppressive.
Still, I told my boss about the interfaith service and offered to cover it. Walking through Market Square to the church that night, the cross atop that high cupola beckoned me, like village churches have done for centuries, all over the world, calling people together to walk through important events with God. That night, local clergy, including a Jewish rabbi, offered words of comfort and urged us against vengeance. One of our photographers captured the image of a little girl blotting tears from her mother’s eyes. On a day when most newspapers led with the smoky buildings, we put that photo on the front page.
There’s so much I can’t protect my daughters from. I guess I’m just trying to teach them to hope, to try to live in love wherever they can, and to care for others when things go bad. That photograph will always be with me, because even when the world gets beyond our control, we still have each other.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. This column is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.” To learn more, visit www.jessejamesdeconto.com.