Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Never Forget the Many ... And the One

Each generation in any given location has, I suppose, at least one event in its collective memory that stands out among all others. The memory of such events are so powerful that we can remember exactly where we were, what we were doing, who we were with, or maybe even what we were wearing on that day.
  • My grandparents' generation remembers hearing the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • My parents' generation recalls hearing of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I can't say a lot about traumatic events for previous generations, because I did not live through them. Several of those type of tragedies have happened in my own lifetime, though. As I have spent the last 19 years living in a country halfway around the world from my own, my memories don't involve just America, but also my adopted country of Indonesia.

On Facebook yesterday, many of my American friends made a point of remembering the events of 9/11 which took place eleven years ago. It seems appropriate to take some time to reflect on a few of the events that had a significant impact on me -- not only 9/11, but two other tragedies as well.

(First photo from
(Second photo from )

Explosion of the Challenger 

Perhaps this is the very first event that left a lasting imprint on my memory. The explosion took the lives of the seven crew members on January 28, 1986.

I was a substitute teacher that day at Ely Elementary School in Elyria, Ohio. I subbed for a teacher named Miss Mudge, and a girl in the class was named LaQuenta. I heard the news as I took the kids to lunch. The school as a whole was especially impacted by that tragedy because one of their own teachers, as I recall, had tried for the position of the first teacher to travel into space.

I also recall that I had parked my old Pontiac Catalina nose-first into a snow drift. When the day was over, I just wanted to go home, but couldn't because I had forgotten to turn off the headlights, and I had to wait for AA to come and jump start the car. 

Events in more recent years have far eclipsed that one, but I still remember ...

Bali Bombing on October12, 2002 

I was in Australia for a conference. I had gone out to a nearby mall to check out deals on a digital camera. I'd eaten a very delicious gyro.

When I returned to my host family's home, my hostess told me to come quickly. Something had happened in Bali. Two night clubs had been bombed in Kuta, Bali. The clubs were located on a street I had passed many times. The scene was unrecognizable. 

Hundreds were killed. Many others were wounded. Many victims were Australians, so I experienced that tragedy through the eyes of a hurting nation. Many Indonesians were killed as well as others from a number of different countries.

I returned three days later to an island in shock. Hundreds of tourists crowded the airport, awaiting a flight home, having cut short their holiday. As I drove down the main street of one of the tourist areas, from one end to the other, I saw only one foreign face. The bombing had dealt a heavy blow to tourism, the lifeblood of the economy in Bali.

By the time I returned to Bali from Australia, the role of volunteers to help the bombing victims themselves was largely over. I did have a chance, though, to join with others who ministered over the next several weeks to the families of those victims as they camped out on the verandahs outside the hospital wards.

I will never forget that first walk through the hospital. Most of the patients who were not bomb victims had been moved to a ward near the entrance. People waiting there showed the normal level of tension you would expect when one attends a sick relative.

As I went further back in the hospital grounds, the mood darkened. Families there appeared shell-shocked, still trying to absorb the tragedy that had hit their lives. There was still hope, though. Their loved ones may be seriously, even critically injured, but were still alive ... for the time being.

Further back, near the makeshift morgue, there was no hope. Only family representatives waited there. The living victims all had names. These people awaited word that their loved one's remains had been identified.

Stack after stack of rough wooden coffins, the sight of high school students shoveling ice, and the acrid smell of death near the morgue is unforgettable. This Bali bombing is the event that left the deepest lasting impression on me as it is the only major traumatic happening that I experienced personally. Other things may happen over the course of my life, but the tragedy of October 12, 2002, will linger as an almost tangible memory ...

(Photo from


That being said, the events of 9/11 has etched pictures in my mind, and in the minds of people around the world, that time is not likely to erase. A common question at this time, eleven years after the event, is, "What were you doing when you heard about the attacks?"

I was in Bali, Indonesia. When it is morning in New York City, it is nighttime in Bali. I was at the home of American friends, Jonathan and Tina, for a rare evening of relaxation. Although I am not a trekkie, I had joined my American friends and a Dutch couple for a marathon of Star Trek videos.

The phone rang and Jonathan left to answer it. He was gone a long time. When he rejoined us, he turned off the video. The phone call had been from his father. Jonathan told us the first tower had been hit. His father would call back within the hour with further news.

All five of us just looked at each other for a moment, stunned. We flipped through the few Indonesian TV stations that were available. No news.

We three Americans hurried upstairs to the home office to check out online news sites for any further information. I have never seen anything like it. We had gotten the news so quickly that on CNN, the main story only contained a headline. There had not even been time to write the story itself.

We rejoined our Dutch friends. There was nothing we could do from so far away but to pray. And so we did. We prayed for the victims and their families, for the firefighters and police officers attempting to rescue people trapped in the tower.

By the next time we heard from Jonathan's father, the tragedy had multiplied exponentially. It didn't seem real. Things like that just didn't happen in the United States ... or so we thought. It had happened, though. It was all too real.

By the time I returned home alone two hours later, Indonesian TV had picked up the images that all of America had been watching for hours. I sat alone in my living room and cried ...

When tragedy strikes, it changes everything. Time passes, and for most people, the sharp edges of pain and shock gradually wear down and become a bit smoother ... but they never totally go away. For those whose lives were immediately impacted by the loss of a loved one, the reverberations of the horror take much longer to heal. 

We have passed the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. Even as we remember what happened in New York City over a decade ago, let us not forget that others face their own personal losses each day.  Whether the tragedy takes the lives of over two thousand ... or two hundred ... or seven ... or just one ... each loss is mourned one by one.

Each family grieves for the father who is never coming home again, for the mother who will never again cuddle her child, for the son or daughter whose voice will never again be heard on the phone. The magnitude of the losses may be huge, but they are grieved one at a time.

In the aftermath of an enormous tragedy, people tend to band together and offer the best they have to give to help those whose lives have been shattered. Let's not forget to reach out to those around us who are passing through their own personal tragedies. You would offer your best to the many. Offer your best to the one.

Weep with those who weep
Romans 12:15b

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