One of the most powerful recollections Susan Gillies has of 9/11 was a conversation she had with a distraught rancher. “I was Region Executive Minister in Nebraska on 9/11 and saw how the attacks were affecting everyone,” recalls Susan Gillies, interim general secretary for American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA).
“In the days following I heard from a rancher who had been working alone out on the vast prairie,” she says. “He told me he felt devastated. Suddenly no contrails were in the sky as he was used to seeing them. He told me he hadn’t realized before how strongly he felt connected to the country by thinking of those in planes crossing the sky far over his head. He told me his job had always been to help feed those people he would never meet. He explained to me how much he now understood those people streaking east and west were fellow citizens.”
Following the attacks all planes were grounded. The rancher saw an umarked sky absent of any contrails. America had come to a halt. “He told me he felt a deep loss ‘in my gut’,” Gillies says.
“On 9/11 I was having breakfast in a diner near the region office and saw the television coverage of the first plane’s hitting the World Trade Center,” Gillies continues. “When the second plane hit, I knew I had to get to the office. Perhaps it was a left-over experience from my former days in the news business.”
Gillies explains that the region office building houses five apartments. “Tenants who were home that day gathered,” she says. “People simply did not want to be alone. We set up a TV in my office, and people would come and go, checking what was happening, sitting for a while, talking softly. One of our tenants, a young woman, spent most of the day there. She didn’t say much at all. She just needed to be close.”
“Nothing was normal that day,” Gillies recalls, “except, perhaps, for an ongoing commitment to a ministry of presence.”
“Now, 16 years later, we stop to reflect and remember not because we can ever understand horrific acts, but because we have a God who walks with us even through the worst times,” she notes. “We then, seeking to be the hands and feet of Christ, recommit ourselves to acts of healing and renewal.”