What Constitutes Sacred Space at Ground Zero?

By Becky Garrison 8-27-2010

Close to nine years after the attacks on September 11, Lower Manhattan remains plagued by the sight of a gaping hole where the Twin Towers once stood. As I noted in the comments section of my God's Politics blog post, "Get Hateful Ads Off the Bus," human remains continue to be discovered at Ground Zero. As the remains of about 1,000 victims have not been identified, Ground Zero represents the only place where these family members can go and pay their respects. If a suitable memorial was in place where 9/11 families and others could come to mourn and reflect, I suspect one would find a different tenor to the debates over Cordoba House.

What could happen if all those religious leaders who flocked to the site during the recovery effort, or to offer their commentary about the "Ground Zero Mosque," decided instead to really sit and listen to the concerns of the post-9/11 community (a group that consists of people from more than 90 countries representing a wide spectrum of faith traditions)? How would a discussion led by people of faith about what constitutes sacred space at Ground Zero inform the creation of a proper and fitting memorial? What insights could various religious traditions bring to a discussion about the ethical treatment of human remains found both at the former WTC site and the Fresh Kills landfill? How should we care for those rescue workers and their families, who are suffering (and in some cases have died) from post-9/11 related illnesses?

As I was contemplating these questions, I started editing an interview I conducted during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival with some of the principal players involved in the documentary Earth Made of Glass. (This interview will be featured in an upcoming issue of Sojourners.)

Understandably, this film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide was incredibly painful to watch. But I became filled with hope when the filmmakers turned their lens on the Genocide Museum. In April 2004, the Kigali Memorial Centre was opened to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. This center, built on the site where more than 250,000 victims are buried, serves as a permanent memorial where Rwandans and others from around the world can come and pay their respects to the victims of genocide.

Also, this center educates visitors about this under-reported event where more than one million people were massacred during a three-month period. Rwandans bring their children to this museum so they can explain to the next generation what happened to this country in the hopes that such hate will never happen again. In addition to documenting the Rwandan genocide, this Centre houses an exhibition on the history of the Armenian, and Jewish holocausts, thus illuminating how such horrific events impact all of us.

What can we learn from the creation of this Centre, which has become a place of healing and education for a nation torn asunder by genocide, that we can apply to the current protests transpiring at Ground Zero?

When I saw the televised protests on August 22, I predicted that violence would soon ensue, a prediction that proved to be horribly correct when a NYC cabbie was attacked for saying he was a Muslim. Before this hatred escalates further, I would encourage religious leaders to help put into practice Archbishop Timothy Dolan's plea, "What we do not need are protests, but promoters of dialog."

Becky Garrison searches for signs of the gospel in action in her latest book Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ. Follow Becky's travels on Twitter @JesusDied4This

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