Courtney Cowart barely escaped the collapsing World Trade towers in a terrifying flight from an adjacent building. But she returned days later to the edge of ground zero to organize a ministry in St. Paul's Chapel, where recovery workers came to sleep and find succor over eight agonizing months.
She calls that moment on the street – when she thought she'd be buried alive – the defining moment of her life.
"There's this gut-level coming to terms with yourself – how well and truly did I live my life?" Dr. Cowart recalls. "That experience, followed by the way people served one another in the chapel – how life-giving it was to pour yourself out for one another and how that keeps your heart open – is still very much what guides me today."
On this seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans are rededicating themselves to the themes of unity, compassion, and service that so characterized their actions in the aftermath of the tragedy. In Washington, D.C., churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are joining in the fourth 9/11 Unity Walk, which has been televised and shown in other countries. In Los Angeles, thousand of youths are meeting for a Peace Jam conference to launch a decade of service projects.
Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain – at the urging of a coalition of families of 9/11 victims (MyGoodDeed.org) – have agreed to a campaign moratorium for the day, including a halt in advertising. The candidates will visit ground zero together and speak at a ServiceNation summit in New York, designed to expand America's commitment to national service. (See story below.)
But for some individuals, 9/11 represents much more than a tragedy calling for annual commemoration: It has reshaped their lives.
Rabbi Hirschfeld, bridge builder
Sept. 11 "changed everything" for Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld of New York.
"It forced me to reconnect with, reexamine, and take responsibility for the way in which radical religion, fanatic faith, absolute certainty had dominated my own life for certain years," he says. During his late teens, he had been involved with ultranationalist religious Zionists in Hebron in the Holy Land. Living within a "self-justifying system," he remembers viewing violent behavior as redemptive.
Now president of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership in New York, Rabbi Hirschfeld says all religious people have to ask themselves the hard questions about how faith functions in the world. "The issue of 9/11 is not Islam; it's fanatic faith."
Since 9/11, "I've committed every waking moment of my life to these issues ... to the new and emerging roles religion has in the 21st century, and how to allow that to unfold without it becoming fanatical, hateful, or triumphalist."
That journey has taken him to remarkable places. At the invitation of American Muslims, for instance, he is beginning his third year as host of a program on Bridges TV, the American Muslim TV Network (on cable in several cities). On the "Building Bridges" show, Hirschfeld discusses everyday concerns and contentious issues with Christian and Muslim leaders.
"9/11 made me realize there was no way for me to do the work I was doing in the Jewish world without also making my connections and work with people of other faiths an equal priority," he says. He's written a guide: "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism."
Arsalan Iftikhar, 'clash' dispeller
For Arsalan Iftikhar, Sept. 11 is indelibly marked as "the most important day of my life."
A second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis the day the planes hit, the articulate young Muslim American realized immediately what was at stake.
"I knew that getting the message out was of paramount importance, and I drafted a condemnation of terrorism [op-ed] to send to every major newspaper in the country," he says. Several published it, and his role as a public spokesman on Islam was launched.
Upon graduation, the human rights lawyer joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Washington D.C., as its national legal director, and interacted with government agencies on hate crime incidents, as well as the USA Patriot Act and other law-enforcement initiatives.
His mission, he says, is to dispel the theory of a clash of civilizations in US and global venues and to play a part in "making a better world for all."
At home, he's seen peaks and valleys in American attitudes toward Islam. The whisper campaign against Sen. Barack Obama as being "some sort of a crypto-Muslim" shows how entrenched some negative attitudes are, he says.
Now a contributing editor for Islamica magazine and a commentator for National Public Radio, Iftikhar is marking the seventh anniversary by launching his own website, "The Muslim Guy," to help take the discourse away from extremists.
"I want people to know we are not only part and parcel of American society but at the forefront of trying to make it a better place," he adds.
Courtney Cowart, service visionary
Cowart, for her part, has become a grass-roots proponent of "service activism."
After hurricane Katrina, Cowart, a scholar of church history, joined other Episcopalians in the first wave of volunteers heading south. She opted to stay on. Drawing on her experience after 9/11 at St. Paul's, she created a 50-person disaster recovery team for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, which has marshaled thousands of volunteers.
Heartened by the tremendous influx of young helpers to the Gulf Coast, Cowart envisions a new generation of service activism.
Yet her experience of the disparity in how the two catastrophes have been dealt with has led her to write a book. "An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina" will be published next month.
New Orleans had many heroes of the storm who did not receive the same level of support or media recognition as those in New York, she says.
For example, "some inner-city youths dove off the I-10 overpass through toxic waters to save people's lives," she says, and other youths who saved elderly people trapped in their homes were mistaken for looters, and their lives threatened, for seeking medicines to help them.
But Cowart is hopeful that just as there was a transformation in class relationships after the New York tragedy, a parallel change is under way along racial lines in the Gulf Coast recovery.
Cowart had hoped to attend the ServiceNation summit to mark this year's anniversary, but her responsibilities in New Orleans made that impossible.
The annual commemoration of 9/11 is essential, she says, "to help reclaim the values that surfaced in its wake: compassion, recognizing there are people in this country that are counting on you to act, rejecting the notion that people brought low are on their own, treating every single person with dignity and respect."