Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Uniting & Reuniting

Mona Zaloom stood among her friends, men and women representing over half a dozen different religions. ‘Building Bridges came about soon after 9-11,’ she said with pride-bolstered passion. ‘We all wanted something better for our world, for our community.’ A quiet chorus of agreement floated among our new friends: Father O’Hara, a Catholic priest; Reverend Karlson, a Unitarian minister; Imam Tahir Kukaj from the Albania Islamic Center; Sultan Jain, head of the Hindu temple down on Victory Boulevard; young Nicholas Tamborra, a Greek Orthodox; Chuck the Episcopalian minister; Jerry of the Jewish faith, an active Building Bridges member and an architect whose first job was working on the new Twin Towers; and Mona’s husband, a parishioner in the local Greek Catholic Church. Soon Hesham from the Staten Island Muslim Civic Center would also join the crowd.

Of Syrian heritage, raised in Italy as a Roman Catholic before converting to Greek Orthodox, Mona Zaloom has intimate experiences with many faiths. ‘I am Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Jewish, Hindu… I am everything,’ she proclaimed. A rather incongruous stance on the surface, but her spirit, and the spirit of the group around her, echoed with a fundamental unity. ‘We all believe in one God,’ she said. ‘Non-violence is at the heart of the Supreme Being.’

In September Building Bridges will have their Peace Pole Dedication, their unifying message - Let Peace Prevail on Earth - displayed in seven languages. Representatives from the United Nations are scheduled to attend this ceremony. Let’s hope they can read at least one of those seven languages.

Before heading to Staten Island to meet Ms. Zaloom and her peaceful army the cross made a stop at Jon’s high school alma mater, Delbarton School in Morristown, New Jersey. Run by the Benedictine monks of St. Mary’s Abbey, Delbarton opens its doors to students of all faiths without sacrificing its Catholic foundation. Abbot Giles Hayes, for many years at the forefront of Delbarton’s reputation for excellence, offered the opening words to the intimate crowd gathered around the Cross in the school’s lush green statue-lined garden.

‘Here in North Jersey, we’ve all been touched.’ Abbot Giles looked around at the monks, teachers and school alumni – fifty people sharing a connection beyond the normal sphere of smiling, laughing friendship. ‘This is a solemn moment for all of us. Let us remember that day.’ The Delbarton community has always been tight; today those bonds ran deeper than the commonality of secondary education.

Tim Soulas graduated from Delbarton in 2008. He was still in grammar school when he lost his father in the 9-11 attacks. Faculty member Craig Paris recalled his close connection to an alum named Brian who also perished that day. ‘Four days before he started school here his father passed away. Please take care of him his sister asked me. And I did, I watched over him till the day he graduated.’ From there Brian’s life would play out beyond his reach. But for Craig the hurt remains. ‘I feel like I let him down.’

We know, we assure each other – there’s no blame to disseminate here. But we’re all human. We’d all feel that same ache, an ache which only time and community can heal.

In the evening we drove back to Jersey for a stop in Chatham Borough, a two square mile town that lost thirteen men that clear September day. At Memorial Park we met with Dan Smith, a sheet metal worker who designed and built the modest memorial that now stands near the community swimming pool. Dan was working in the World Trade Center at the time of the 1993 bombing, and watched from a rooftop in Jersey City when the towers fell in 2001. ‘It was a great honor just to be asked to be a part of this,’ he said, gazing at his handiwork, his eyes reflecting the bittersweet emotion attached to that honor.

Down the street we met with a few members of the borough’s volunteer fire department. After listening to their stories and sharing a few of our own, Jack Conlan climbed up onto Jon’s truck to place a Chatham Borough FD cap inside the Cross. ‘This is truly a privilege,’ said the fifty-two year veteran. ‘I’m very honored to do this for my country.’

Fifty two years. Jack, it is we who are honored.