Washington National Cathedral commemorated the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, with A Call to Compassion, a weekend of events for the nation. Programs began on Friday, September 9, with A Concert to Honor; they culminated in A Concert for Hope on Sunday, September 11, which included an address by President Barack Obama. The series took place despite multiple setbacks: following the earthquake and threatened hurricane, a crane collapse on September 7 added to the Cathedral’s damage and closed its doors to the public. With the Cathedral unable to reopen safely in time, its concerts took place at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A number of interfaith and worship offerings were moved to nearby Washington Hebrew Congregation.
The commemorative weekend of events, planning for which commenced more than a year prior, aimed to bring the nation together to honor the lives lost, help heal the wounds incurred, and to bring about a sense of hope for the next decade. In announcing the line-up of programs, then-Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd iii said, “Washington National Cathedral has played a unique role in the life of the nation, particularly at times of national tragedy and other moments of great significance. The days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, were one such time as President Bush spoke at the Cathedral in what he called ‘the middle hour of our grief.’ We still have much work to do to heal the rifts in our nation, and yet there is reason for us to hope.”
A product of the Cathedral’s collaboration with the Pentagon Memorial Fund, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and the Flight 93 National Memorial, the events were made possible by Lockheed Martin Corporation with additional support from F.I.S.H. Foundation, Inc. The Cathedral also benefited from a production partnership with Interface Media Group and ABC-7/WJLA-TV, of Washington, D.C.
A Concert to Honor
On Friday, September 9, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General David Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, spoke at A Concert to Honor. A memorial concert dedicated to the victims of 9/11 as well as the nearly 6,000 troops who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it featured the Brahms Requiem performed by the Marine Chamber Orchestra, the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters, the Cathedral Choir, soprano Christine Brandes, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, under the direction of Col. Michael J. Colburn.
“My biggest observation post-9/11, which I’d like to share with you—and it sounds simple, but for the families it’s not: life is for the living, and to live is to survive,” said Captain Thomas P. Heidenberger, board member of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, who lost his wife Michele Heidenberger on American Airlines Flight 77. “As a nation we have survived, and as a country we continue to live. As families, we have survived.”
Captain Anne Marsh of the Arlington County Fire Department recited “Heavy,” a poem by Mary Oliver, which began:
That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying; I went closer and I did not die. Surely God had his hand in this, as well as friends.
Men and women in uniform reflecting their military service, airline pilots and flight attendants, as well as first responders and many family members of 9/11 victims, were among those in attendance.
“Today, we not only commemorate those nearly 3,000 innocent lives who perished on September 11, 2001, but we also honor those who stepped forward in the wake of those attacks, the generation that answered the nation’s call to serve in a time of war: a new generation that has volunteered to shoulder the burden of protecting this country—a young generation fighting for a better life, a better America, and a better world,” said Secretary Panetta.
A stirring arrangement of “America the Beautiful” by Canon Michael McCarthy, the Cathedral’s director of music, concluded the first half of the program and featured Rosemarie Chandler, National Cathedral School senior, singing the opening verse unaccompanied.
The arrival of General Petraeus on stage resulted in a standing ovation. “For much of the past decade, I have had the honor of serving in various fronts of the fight against terror,” he said. “At countless dusty outposts and operating bases, and on innumerable patrols through marketplaces and bazaars, I have seen our remarkable young men and women in action. … They have shown valor, creativity, initiative, and resolve.”
A central screen above the stage displayed video footage during the Requiem. In addition to the tragedies of 9/11, footage depicted troops preparing for deployment and reuniting with family members. Three screens in total, positioned high above the stage, depicted rotating imagery of Cathedral stained glass windows, arches, and other elements, to suggest the Cathedral’s sacred atmosphere within the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. In addition to the Brahms, musical selections performed Friday evening included Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Unity in Prayer
On the morning of September 11, 2011, the Cathedral’s interfaith vigil (held at Washington Hebrew Congregation) commemorated the exact moments of the attacks 10 years earlier. Bishop of Washington John Bryson Chane; Rabbi Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation; Imam Mohammed Magid, executive director of All Dulles Area Muslim Society; Her Eminence Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, president of Samten Tse Charitable Projects and Mindrolling International; and Dr. D. C. Rao of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington offered readings and reflections on the themes of change, compassion, love, justice, and mercy from their respective faith traditions. Prayers and other readings were offered by the Rev. Dr. Kathy J. Nelson, president of F.I.S.H. Foundation, Inc., and Chaplain Timothy Miner, retired Air Force colonel. Dean Lloyd provided a summary reflection, and Dr. Rajwant Singh, national chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, offered a benediction at the close of the service.
Haunting musical calls to prayer featured chanting in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. At later points in the service, all five cantors chanted their respective prayers simultaneously to create a stirring dissonance that blended into one voice. Additional music was offered by the Humayun Khan Ensemble, cellist Gita Ladd, and the Cathedral Singers directed by Canon McCarthy.
Rabbi Lustig referenced Victor Frankel in relation to lessons learned from Holocaust death camps, “that cruelty and hatred cannot invade the soul; he taught that we often cannot control the circumstances we face but we can control how we respond to those circumstances. We can choose love over hate, faith over fear, light over darkness. September 11 and the terrorists had changed America, but only we would determine how.”
“At the center of the three Abrahamic faith traditions is the word compassion: God’s compassion for all of humanity,” said Bishop Chane. “And living well into compassion forms us into accepting the burdens, heartaches, disappointments, and losses of others into our own life and experience. Without action, compassion has no meaning.”
“When tragedies happen, even like September eleventh, we can choose to harden our hearts to cope with the pain of our loss. We can become like stones, or we can use loving kindness to unearth the jewels locked within,” said Rinpoche. “From the rubble of this tragedy, let us honor the loved ones we lost and heal our hearts. With love, anything is possible.”
“Justice is not about enforcing a law; it is about how we treat each other,” said Rao. “The foundation of justice is embracing our common humanity with others, recognizing our shared destiny and respecting their ideas and practices. Without understanding and respect, there can be no justice.”
“Faith is mercy,” said Imam Magid. “Mercy is the love for humanity. Love for humanity is to believe that human life—all human life—is sacred, and that every human is entitled to a life of dignity, love, and respect.”
Doubts and Loves
Karen Armstrong, world-renowned authority in the field of comparative religion and bestselling author, was Dean Lloyd’s guest after the vigil for a Sunday Forum discussion on the centrality of compassion to almost all religious traditions.
“Every single one of us can show compassion to other people and change a life around. Compassion, and giving people a sense of worth, is what makes us human beings at our best,” said Armstrong. “Unless we learn to implement the Golden Rule globally and treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, and give them that sense of worth and value, I don’t think we’re going to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.”
A commemorative service of Holy Eucharist concluded the morning’s worship and included a plainsong recitation of Psalm 103:1–13 and the hymn, “Lord, make us servants of your peace,” the text of which is based on the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. A collection to benefit the 9/11 memorial partners was taken and resulted in offerings totaling $6,500.
Dean Lloyd preached on Matthew 18:2, in which Peter asks Jesus how to forgive. “9/11 opened us to one of the greatest challenges our human race faces,” Lloyd noted, namely “to be able to see the face of God in those who are profoundly different from us.”
A Concert for Hope
The culminating event of the commemorative weekend, A Concert for Hope, took place the evening of Sunday, September 11, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a capacity crowd and thousands more households watching online and on live television broadcasts. CNN anchor and talk show host Anderson Cooper presided over the program, which began with a performance by country star Alan Jackson of his popular song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?”
President Obama—who arrived with First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Dr. Jill Biden—then took the podium. Numerous cabinet members were also in attendance including Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice were also present.
President Obama opened and concluded his address by quoting the King James Bible translation of Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Reflecting on what has changed in the past decade, the president also noted that “it is worth remembering what has not changed. Our character as a nation has not changed. Our faith, in God and in each other—that has not changed. These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear,” President Obama continued, lauding the courage of rescue workers, firefighters, airplane passengers, “the burn victim who has bounced back, the families who press on,” and other Americans.
These include the “two million Americans [that] have gone to war since 9/11: they are men and women who left behind lives of comfort for two, three, four, five tours of duty. Too many will never come home. Those that do carry dark memories from distant places and the legacy of fallen friends.”
President Obama also honored the great diversity of our nation while referencing President Bush, who “after 9/11, to his great credit, made clear what we reaffirm today: the United States will never wage war against Islam or any other religion.”
In summarizing what he believed will be the legacy of 9/11 decades from now, the president called the country to honor its “resilient democracy” along with “those aspects of the American experience that are enduring, and the determination to move forward as one people.”
R&B legend Patti LaBelle followed the address with a rousing rendition of her song “Two Steps Away.” Also performing that night were the Marine Chamber Orchestra and the Cathedral Choir, which offered the second movement from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. It featured 13 year-old Justin Frazier, an eighth grader at St. Albans School, singing the Hebrew text of Psalm 23 as soloist. Renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves concluded the program with an emotional version of “Amazing Grace.”
Loss and Healing
In addition to the featured artists, family members of 9/11 victims were represented by James J. Laychak, president and chairman of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, whose brother Dave died in the Pentagon; Christine Ferer, board member of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, whose husband Neil Levin, former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, died in the North Tower; and D. Hamilton Peterson, former president of the Families of Flight 93, whose father and step-mother died on Flight 93.
Numerous other family members of 9/11 victims were also in attendance throughout the weekend. For many of them, the Cathedral’s events were the first commemorative programs they had formally attended in the past decade.
“The Cathedral community provided a quiet space to gather with family members who had suffered such horrendous loss outside of the public glare of TV cameras and media attention, and they found sanctuary among Cathedral clergy and each other,” said the Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope, Cathedral vicar. “They felt they were in a safe and protected pastoral place where they could remember and grieve with respect and reverence and support. It was a holy and sacred privilege for all of us from the Cathedral.”
Canon McCarthy, who served as artistic director for the weekend’s events, reflected on the challenges faced by the Cathedral leading up to the commemoration: “This weekend was not about the Cathedral; it was about our mission and our responsibility to live up to it. With our beloved space temporarily out of commission, I have been reminded—not for the first time—that our greatest asset is not, in fact, the building, but the people it serves and those who serve it.”