I think I may never have felt quite so out of place as on that day. We had moved to St. Louis less than a month before, and my first semester of teaching was still just beginning. Stunned by the early morning news, I forced my way to a 9:30 a.m. "Introduction to Philosophy" class. The students were talking about airplanes, towers, Bin Laden and asking "why"?
Many professors used classes that day to help students reflect on their questions and feelings. But I was an inexperienced workaholic: I numbed my feelings of grief by throwing myself into a lecture on Plato, of which I am sure that no one remembers a word (I certainly don't). After class, heading back to my office, I stumbled into a surreal scene: faculty and staff gathered before a large projection TV, watching the Twin Towers burn and fall — over and over — while eating delicious catered food delivered earlier for a colloquium that would never happen, the guest speaker grounded in some far-away airport. I sat, watched, ate some fruit.
Suffering is an opportunity for grace, and a few days later grace came in an event that made me feel profoundly in place and made SLU feel like home. My wife and I were profoundly disturbed by reports of anti-Muslim violence from around the country. We decided to go to the Friday prayers at the Islamic Center on the SLU campus as a sign of our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. As we approached the building, pulling our four-year-old by the hand and carrying our new baby, we saw them: Hundreds of other Christians and secular people making their way to the center to take a preemptive stand against violence, to express love in the midst of pain. We entered the building. We were welcomed. We removed our shoes.
When I saw so many at SLU living out the Gospel in this way, I knew that this was home. But I, as an individual, and we, as a community, still have a long way to go. In my summer course a few months ago, a Muslim student told me this story. As he walked a down a campus sidewalk with his girlfriend, someone repeatedly called him a "terrorist," for no reason other than his appearance. Stories like this show that we still have a lot to learn.
As our initial ramp-up into the new semester turns into routine, let us not forget that our primary mission is to pursue truth, and that includes the hard truth about ourselves: We are broken, flawed, frail at best — there is a bigot, even a terrorist, in each of us. And as 9/11 reminds us, even those who seem strongest are terribly vulnerable to pain, suffering and death. But we are not alone. Because Jesus Christ — God incarnate — has called us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11), we are worthy of connection. We belong to each other and are enough for each other. Knowing that gives us strength to push ahead, to do more and be more for each other.
"If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face. But if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself." Luke 14:11
Scott Ragland, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy