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REMEMBERING SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

September 11, 2022

Today marks the twenty-first anniversary of one of the most horrific days of terror in American history. Al-Qaeda operatives targeted the World Trade Center’s twin towers, the Pentagon, and probably the White House. Nineteen foreign agents hijacked four commercial jetliners and turned them into guided missiles of war. The planes, each fueled to capacity, were bound for California. Nearly three thousand people died in the attacks.

I taught in the Religion Department at the University of South Carolina Upstate as an adjunct professor for ten years. I taught the introductory level course, Comparative Religion. Many of my students were not even born before September 11, 2001.

A line from the musical South Pacific is a poignant reminder of how people become prejudiced.

Children have to be taught to hate and to fear.

They have to be carefully taught.

In the opening lecture of my class, I made it clear to the students that we would approach the study of world religions with respect for all people regardless of their faith orientation. This is a necessary prerequisite if the journey leads beyond tolerance to a genuine understanding of faiths other than our own. In my opinion, this approach is a much-needed corrective to our current national mindset.

Perhaps never before in my lifetime has there been a more intense atmosphere of doubt and suspicion in our nation. After the atrocities of Adolph Hitler’s Germany, many Americans were guarded in our encounters with people of German heritage, even our fellow citizens. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Americans became suspicious of people of Japanese origin.   The Cold War kept us on edge in our dealings with those of Russian descent.

Yet how deprived we would be without the musical compositions of Germans Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann.

Think of our poverty without the music of Russians Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Igor Stravinsky or the writings of their countrymen Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The art and culture of Japan have long enriched American life. While we have had legitimate reasons to regard the governments of other countries at certain times as enemies, we have also found among those same people individuals who have made our lives better.

On the anniversary of 9/11, Americans will pause to remember the day when the twin towers fell in New York City, the Pentagon burned in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania became a charred grave. It is impossible to erase the mental images of the destruction of these important landmarks. Our overwhelming sense of loss and grief is even more difficult after all these years.

In worship services and symphony concerts, at baseball games and football games, at community events and candlelight vigils, we will remember.   The violent acts of al-Qaeda terrorists that turned our commercial jet planes into instruments of war changed our lives forever.

But, this was not just an attack against America.

The 2,977 victims who died that day were not only Americans. The World Trade Center brought together people from all over the globe. More than ninety countries lost citizens in the Twin Towers. This horror was unleashed not only against America. It was also a strike against the world.

We remember those who died and the more than 6,000 who were treated for nonfatal injuries. We remember the spouses and children of the victims, the parents, the siblings, and the friends who, even now, twenty-one years later, continue to grieve.

We remember the heroic men and women who worked to save, rescue, recover, nurse, feed, and console the victims. Some gave their lives in the effort, becoming victims themselves. Many others have since become causalities of war, protecting and defending our national interest.

Like most of you, I remember that day well. I was driving to Morningside Baptist Church on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my wife, Clare, called me on my cell phone. “You need to turn on a television when you get to the church,” she said.

I telephoned the church office. The staff already had a TV on in the office.

When I arrived, a crowd had gathered. We all watched in dismay as the second jet plane struck the second tower of the World Trade Center.

The events of that day were confusing and confounding. President George W. Bush was reading to a group of children in Florida when he received the news of the devastation. I, along with many other Americans, will never forget the expression on his face.

I had been asked to open the luncheon meeting of a civic club later that day with a devotion and a prayer. As I considered what to say to that distinguished group of community leaders, a hymn kept coming to mind. My devotion was brief. My prayer included some of the words of a favorite hymn by Martin Luther:

Though this world, with evil filled, should threaten to undo us,

               We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. 

               The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

               His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure….

The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;

               His kingdom is forever.

               Hatred is the motive behind terrorism. Terrorism evokes fear. Fear is the root of prejudice. Prejudice creates adversaries. An adversarial relationship promotes hatred. This vicious cycle must be broken. Otherwise, we become like terrorists, and they will have defeated us.

               A few days after September 11, 2001, Clare and I drove to Greenville. We had seen reports indicating that Americans were reacting with hostility toward Muslim citizens of this country and people who looked like Muslims. Non-Muslim men who wore turbans, like the Sikhs, were victims of violence. Palestinians, even those who were American citizens, had come under suspicion and even under attack. About one-third of all Palestinians are Christians and make up the majority of Palestinian refugees. Many have come to America and have become citizens.

               Before the coronavirus pandemic, Clare and I often enjoyed eating at the Pita House in Greenville. The restaurant, owned and operated by a Palestinian family, serves sumptuous Middle Eastern food. We wanted to visit them and let them know of our support. When we arrived, the establishment was decked out with American flags. I spoke with the brothers, who are the owners. They felt the same horror and grief that other Americans felt. Yet they feared that they might be targeted by those who had become so suspicious and fearful.

               Speaking to the nation following a long day of uncertainty, President George W. Bush addressed America.

A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining….

America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

Those who died on 9/11 will help us remember an important truth. No one lives, suffers, or dies in vain.   Even as we remain vigilant in a world of terror, such acts of hatred will not defeat us. Love is the greatest power in the world. We cannot allow terror to lead us to suspicion and hatred. Our best response to the atrocities of 9/11 is to become more loving toward all people. It is the only way to conquer fear and hate within the human soul.

The words of a prayer by the late South African Bishop Desmond Tutu ring true:

Good is stronger than evil;

Love is stronger than hate;

Light is stronger than darkness;

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.

Amen.

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

This column will be included in the forthcoming book entitled

A Book of Days: A year of Devotional Meditations.

The publication date is 2023 or 2024.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Speaking Down Barriers, PO Box 7133, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304, info@speakdownbarriers.org,

803-526-7496.

WORKING AT THE LUMBERYARD

September 11, 2022

“Dr. Kirk, tomorrow is the day!” the young woman exclaimed. A petite blue-eyed blond, she stood in line with her tall, lanky husband at a local restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice that she was in a family way. She was very pregnant. The Biblical description is “great with child.”

“And what is tomorrow?” I asked.

“Tomorrow is labor day,” answered the young husband.

“Yes! Tomorrow morning at six o’clock, we have to be at Labor and Delivery at the hospital for the arrival of our first child.”

“Get some rest,” I advised. “There is a good reason they call it going into labor.” I can attest to the fact that the labor of giving birth is hard work. I spoke out of my experience of being with Clare for the deliveries of each of our five children.

My dad, father of eight, used to say, “If men and women took turns having babies, no family would have more than three. There’s not a man on earth who would go through that twice.”

Labor Day as a holiday for workers was first proposed in May 1882 by a carpenter, Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor. After witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada, McGuire thought such a celebration was needed in this country. Others say that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.

Whether McGuire or Maguire, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 when the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve the legislation. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. By that time, thirty states had already celebrated the day. South Carolina was not one of them.

When I was a boy, Labor Day was never a holiday at the lumberyard. I remember it as the day the Southern 500 stock car race was run in Darlington, South Carolina.

Now Labor Day is a reminder of how I learned to work.

My seven younger siblings and I all learned to work, first for our mother. Most of us worked at the lumberyard when we were teenagers, the brothers on the yard, the sisters in the office. It was a formative experience for all of us.

My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1889. I called him Pappy. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his mother and three siblings following his father’s death in a railroad accident. He worked alternately for his grandfather on the farm and for his uncle in the dry goods business.   Enlisting in the United States Navy at age 19, Pappy served four years in Cuba. He sent every paycheck home to his mother to support the family. Upon his discharge, he worked for a telegraph company as a lineman. His company sent him to the Lowcountry of South Carolina to do the electrical wiring for a sawmill. 

At a Cakewalk at the Methodist church in Estill, he met the woman who would become his wife and my grandmother, Mammy. In 1923, Pappy and Mammy moved to Spartanburg, where he opened his own lumberyard. 

During the Great Depression, they lost their home and their business. They raised nine children, sweet potatoes, and turkeys with grit, determination, and faith on a rented red clay farm in Cedar Springs. Every person in the family had to work.

Following the Depression, Pappy opened another lumberyard, a family business that stayed in operation until 2009, forty-seven years after Pappy’s death.

When I was a boy, I wanted to work at the lumberyard. It was a natural thing. The men that I admired most worked at the lumberyard:  Dad and Pappy. 

My dad told me I could have a job, but he said, “Before you work at the lumberyard, you have to learn to work for your mama.” 

Working for my mother was more demanding than working anywhere else. I spent most Saturday mornings waxing and polishing the white oak floors in our home. Mama always had plenty of chores to parcel out to her children. As the oldest of eight, I was expected to set the example.

I can still hear the reverberating echo of my mother’s warning, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Finally! I got the promotion! I went to work at the lumberyard the summer after I finished the seventh grade. I was thirteen years old. I weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds, soaking wet.

On the very first day on the job, my dad put me to the task of unloading a boxcar filled with bags of cement. In those days, nothing was palletized. The old boxcar had just one door. Forklifts were not yet available. All the cement had to be taken out by hand, one ninety-six-pound bag at the time, put on hand trucks, rolled up a ramp, and loaded into a warehouse. My dad knew that I needed a good teacher to show me how to work. That person was Charlie Norman. 

I don’t know how old Charlie was when I started working with him. I asked him one time. He said he didn’t know for sure but knew he was about as old as dirt. I didn’t ask again, but I knew Charlie was very old. He had been working for my grandfather since before the Depression, delivering lumber in a one-horse wagon.

I will never forget that first day on the job. Those bags of cement were nearly a hundred pounds of dead weight. Charlie would stack them eight and nine high on the hand trucks, break the hand trucks down, and roll them up the ramp into a warehouse. I could stack no more than three bags onto the hand trucks. I had to jump up and use all my weight on the handles to break it down. It was all I could do to roll the hand trucks up the ramp. Most of the time, I had to turn around backwards and pull the load up the ramp.

By about ten o’clock in the morning, I was drenched with sweat and covered with sticky cement. Charlie peeled off his shirt. His ebony skin glistened. He looked like a bodybuilder. He was an old man whose muscles were toned by hard work.

We took a half-hour break for the noon meal, not nearly enough time for me. I walked into the office and stood in front of a large exhaust fan for a few minutes. Pappy saw me dripping wet, trying to cool down. He said, “Kirk, if you get enough education, you can work in the shade.” It was a lesson I have never forgotten.

Charlie and I worked together all afternoon until quitting time. Charlie got his second wind. He started whistling in a low whisper. By four o’clock, he was singing. We had worked all day long. I was bone tired. Charlie was lifting a low song under his breath, “We’ll work till Jesus comes.”

Dad and I got home a little after six o’clock. I took a shower. Mama had fixed a special meal, fried chicken, rice, and gravy. I fell asleep at the supper table. Dad guided me to bed and had a prayer with me. At five o’clock the next morning, he woke me up for my second day at the lumberyard. 

I worked all summer long, earning a grand total of two dollars a day. I learned to drive that summer – a three-ton lumber truck.

 I asked my Dad years later why he started me with such a difficult job. 

“I wanted you to learn that this is hard work. Money doesn’t grow on trees.” 

I asked why he paid me so little. 

He grinned, “Be glad I didn’t pay you what you were worth.” 

As much as I enjoyed working with men I admired, as much as I enjoyed talking with customers, that summer was important because I learned the nobility of work.

And you know what? I didn’t have to work at a lumberyard very long before I heard the Lord calling me to do something else.   

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Some of the stories in this column will be included in the forthcoming book,

Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to a nonprofit that embodies your personal values. Thank you.

IMMIGRANTS ALL

September 11, 2022
Author Portrait of Kirk H. Neely 2022

It seems we are constantly hearing much conversation about the topic of immigration—not only in political debates but also in daily discussions about the future well-being of our country. How should we respond to people who want to immigrate to the United States? Suggestions range from total exclusion to many different versions of an open-door policy. Year after year, the debate continues. Lately, the mention of immigration has been more polarizing than ever.  

This week I’ve been in the hospital receiving medical care for some of the effects of 34 years of type 2 Diabetes. You have a lot of time on your hands when you’re in the hospital. I like to use that time in prayer. One afternoon, as I lay in my bed listening to the beep, beep, beep of monitors, I prayed. I prayed for our country, our world, and a list of people and concerns that change daily.

I thought about the nurse who cared for me with such attention that day. Her gentle ear and her confident handling of a tired, sick old man were examples of the best-in-class treatment I had received from so many. I prayed for her and for the others who had given me care. As I did, I realized that more than half of the staff I had seen in the last several days had come from somewhere else. Most of that portion were immigrants—the physician who came to this country from Egypt, the physical therapist who came to the U.S. from Russia, the respiratory therapist who was born in Bolivia, the USC Upstate student, and a first-generation American whose parents arrived here from Mexico. And then there was the nurse’s aid from India who brought me a warm blanket when I was cold in the night,  the pulmonologist who emigrated from Nigeria, the supervisory nurse who came to this country from Vietnam, and my nurse—who arrived here from the Philippines just six years ago, to name a few. All of these people came to my room at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center (perhaps we should call it Spartanburg International Medical Center). Some were bilingual—some spoke Spanish, French, or Arabic. Some spoke English but with a Ghanaian or Nigerian accent. All of these people played a part in saving my life this week.

Once again, the topic of immigration came home to me. I spent some time reflecting on how immigration policy had long been a hotly debated issue in our country but also thinking about how grateful I was that these people from other countries had made their way to America.

Daniel Hutson was imprisoned in England because he was a debtor, or because he was a Baptist, or maybe both.  Once released from prison, Hutson immigrated to America in 1728.  When Daniel arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, the ship’s captain bound him over to a wealthy colonial plantation owner as an indentured servant. This was a common method of paying for passage to the colonies in the 18th century.  At the end of seven years of service, Hutson was given clothing, a few farm implements, and fifty acres of land. The land was in what is now Barnwell County, South Carolina.

The saga of Daniel Hutson, and many like him, has been repeated oft times in the history of the United States.  Immigrants have found a place in this country if they are willing to work hard.

Africans were captured, enslaved, and brought in chains to this country against their will. Black Americans in the South and Latino farm workers in the Southwest labored in the sunbaked fields of prosperous landowners to sustain life for themselves and their families. Asians, Europeans, and a variety of ethnic groups seeking a brighter future came to our shores, becoming a part of the melting pot that is America.

The American work ethic is a treasured value. We have always valued people who work hard for a living. Auto workers in Detroit, coal miners in Appalachia, textile workers in the Upstate, and others in the work force were once recognized as the backbone of America. Those who “tote that barge and lift that bale” in the Mississippi Delta or wrangle cattle on the Great Plains were admired.  John Henry, swinging his nine-pound hammer, and Paul Bunyan, wielding his oversized ax, were immortalized in legend and in song.

Several years ago, I traveled with our son Kris for a meeting in Clinton, South Carolina. In a local restaurant, Kris and I had coffee across the table from two Islamic men from Greenwood, South Carolina. One man, an employee of the Fuji Company, was an emigrant from India. The second man, a United States Postal Service worker, was originally from Pakistan. Our conversation was enjoyable. Our business was concluded. They paid for our coffee.

One hot afternoon ten years ago, two men working on a construction project at the church I served had taken their lunch break. They were sitting in the shade before returning to the job. I greeted them and thanked them for their hard work. Though their conversation with each other had been in Spanish, they responded to me in English. Jorge and Juan were their names. I knew little about them—immigrant or citizen, green card or not—but I admired the way they worked.  

The words of Emma Lazarus are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Lady Liberty extends an invitation that endorses a remarkably open immigration policy, one that has recently been highly debated in Washington, in the public media, and among candidates for political office.

In recent years, we’ve heard tragic, real-life stories of atrocities that happen along our southern border—children separated from their parents, hundreds of immigrants being rounded up at the border, loaded on buses, and shipped off to other states. These events should become a crisis of conscience for all Americans, regardless of their political persuasion. My dear Clare once woke up in the middle of the night weeping for immigrant children separated from their families. “Think if our grandchildren were being taken from their parents,” she lamented.

Every living first lady has taken a stand on this crisis. We know where Lady Liberty stands. Maybe the mothers and the grandmothers of our land will help us find the way.

There is blame flying from both sides of the debate, and there is plenty to go around. In my own prayers, I beseech God to guide our thinking and our policy.

I recall an interesting article in the New York Times in 2009 that addressed immigration from an unusual perspective.

The article recounted a debate that occurred on the Senate floor at least 14 years ago. Senator Pete Domenichi made an impassioned speech, telling about the arrest of his mother in 1943.  Alda Domenichi, the mother of four and a PTA president, who emigrated illegally from Italy.

Senator Arlin Spector acknowledged that his mother and his father emigrated from Russia.  

Senator Jon Kyl revealed that his grandparents came from the Netherlands.  

Senator Mel Martinez fled Cuba when he was fifteen years old.  He lived in orphanages and with foster families until he was reunited with his family after four years.  

Like many of our national quarrels, the debate over immigration seems to revolve around the issue of the economy.  Do immigrants take jobs our citizens need, or do immigrants perform jobs nobody else will do? Does immigrant labor help the economy by increasing productivity, or do immigrants overtax the health and welfare services provided by the government?

Many of those who want to immigrate to America are struggling to survive, to escape the horrors of war and genocide. I believe we should welcome them and provide a haven for them. America has a history of being willing to receive those who were fleeing for life itself from tyrants and despots in the quest for freedom and opportunity.

Of course, the issue of national security plays an important part in the discussion. Are these people coming to America to help us become a stronger nation, or are they coming as enemies? There is no doubt that we do need to be careful in the screening procedures we put in place.

A seafarer from Wales, Captain William Lawton settled in the Lowcountry of South Carolina just twenty miles north of Savannah.

An English soldier named Rheney traveled with General Oglethorpe as a guard, married an indentured servant, and eventually settled near Augusta, Georgia.        

Three Scots-Irish lads left Belfast in Northern Ireland and sailed to the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. These three Presbyterian brothers traveled the Carolina Wagon Road from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Chester County, South Carolina. They all married immigrant women and settled along Fishing Creek, establishing the Neely family in the backcountry.

Jakob Lang immigrated to South Carolina from Switzerland, eventually taking up residence in Saluda County.

John Mitchell and his family came from Scotland to Lexington County, South Carolina.

The indentured servant Daniel Hutson, another of my ancestors, the one from whom I get my middle name, Hudson, was an immigrant.

All of these families were immigrants. It is from these families that Clare and I are descended.  

Recently, my children have reminded me of a favorite poem of our family. It was written by Edwin Markham and is entitled “Outwitted.”

He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

The invitation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is inclusive, not exclusive.  

The truth is that we Americans or our forbearers came to this land from somewhere else; many before there were laws stipulating whether it was legal or illegal. It is true that we must be careful, and people must obey the law. But it is also true that we are immigrants all.

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to a nonprofit that helps immigrants. As for me, I’ll be making a donation to the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, where our dear family friend works hard every day to protect some of the most vulnerable new Americans. Find out more about their efforts at www.tnimmigrant.org.