One Year After Terrorism Comes to God's Country
By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Nevin A. Lambert shoveled coal into buckets that morning. It was September. Winter lay ahead. His 100-acre beef cow farm outside town abuts a barren, rolling field, miles in every direction, filled with knee-high grass and white prairie flowers. The sky's blue dome envelops it all.
That morning, 55-year-old Lambert, and no one else, saw the plane barreling over the horizon. It flew low. It appeared to tremble. It zagged. He remembers: ''There wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was quiet.'' The plane flipped on its side, then nose-dived into the field. A fireball erupted, spewing forth a black cloud. Lambert gripped his coal bucket, staring.
In town, Mayor Ernest Stull's dishes rattled. People ran into the streets. They saw the cloud rise from beyond the hills. Soon, government agents swarmed the countryside. Terrorism arrived that bloody morning in Shanksville, population 245. Unlike New York and Washington, however, what happened in Shanksville happened in the middle of nowhere, which in America is really the middle of everywhere.
God's country, locals proudly say. Church anchors life here; Sunday remains sacred. As townsfolk assisted federal agents and investigators at the crash site, they besieged their pastors with anguished questions. Where was God on Sept. 11? How could an all-knowing, all-powerful God permit such bloodshed? Was He trying to tell us something?
The folks of Shanksville pondered hard. After all, United Flight 93 was seconds from plowing into town. Church attendance here - and around faith-imbued America - spiked dramatically. That day, Pastor Sylvia Baker of the Assemblies of God Church in town consulted the Bible, her indispensable reference for life's questions. The book of the Apostle Mark, Chapter 13, Verse 8, resonated: ''For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom . . . and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows.'' ''Scripture tells us certain things are going to happen before the end comes,'' she recalled preaching the following Sunday. ''Certainly, all this - wars, and rumors of wars, and people who reject authority - it's all part of the plan, and it is coming together.''
But Baker's true concern was the heart: People needed to embrace Jesus Christ, within, for real. Just around the corner, at Shanksville United Methodist, Rev. Ron Emery found it was the Old Testament Book of Job that spoke to him, a passage in which God first addresses Job: ''Where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.'' ''God is saying to Job, `You're going to have to be satisfied that I let happen what I do,' '' Emery said. ''I told people our job after 9/11 was to reach out to others. We have been ignorant for so long.'' Baker saw a sign in 9/11; Emery did not. Baker urged repentance, Emery outreach.
On Sundays, two-thirds of the town was in their churches. Discussion spilled from the pews to wooden porch fronts and the sandwich line at Ida's Store and to the crash site itself, which was transformed over months from a crime scene to a shrine. And so the people of Shanksville - like many others - began trying to understand Sept. 11 through the prism through which they understand much of life: faith. Where was God that morning?
In a small town
Shanksville got its start in 1798, when German immigrant Christian Shank set up a mill on the bank of the Stoney Creek River in southeastern Pennsylvania, near Maryland. Others soon settled around the mill. The town rests on a hillside, spreading over about 20 blocks lined by white clapboard houses with porches. Many bear ''Welcome'' signs, with family names written in cursive. There is a snowmobile dealer, an Amoco, the Marlin-Dively Car Store, and Ida's, which sells groceries, videos, sandwiches, and now 9/11 memorabilia. Matt Duppstadt's Custom Butchery lies on the outskirts. On a recent afternoon, three giggling teenage girls asked passersby for money. Their cat, they explained, required costly surgery. Ernest Stull, 78, has been mayor for ''12 years or something like that,'' he said. The World War II veteran served as fire chief for 32 years. Early on Sept. 11, as he watched the World Trade Center ablaze on television, the town mail carrier remarked to him, ''Thank God nothing like this happens in Shanksville.''
Soon, federal agents ran the town. Stull and his volunteer corps gathered food for the agents. Anything they needed - shovels, sunscreen - Stull supplied, drawing on donations from around the country. After several days it became clear that the passengers of Flight 93 had fought back against the hijackers as the plane made a beeline toward Washington. ''There is no doubt in my mind that God was up there with them,'' Stull said. ''He was the first person to put the plane down.'' The pastors in town met with Red Cross experts, who told them to first and foremost reassure their congregations.
Sylvia Baker would have none of it. ''I didn't feel that way,'' she said. ''I saw this all happening, and I felt this was a wake-up call to the US and to the church. I said, `Let's get it together, folks!' '' Baker's silvery blond hair falls to her shoulders. Her eyes widen and twinkle to emphasize points. That week, she placed a sign outside her church: ''Pray Without Ceasing!'' The Assemblies of God is a volunteer cooperative of ''charismatic'' churches, shunned by more mainstream denominations for their practice of speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit sometimes flows through the chosen, they believe, causing them to rise up and speak - in their own private language. Sometimes another congregant equally possessed can translate. Occasionally, Baker said, speakers use a foreign language they have never learned.
Baker, 68, spent most of her professional life as a hazardous materials engineer. But, ''God worked on me over the years,'' she said. Her husband died of bone cancer in 1993, and a few years later she quit work to attend seminary classes. She arrived in Shanksville three years ago. Baker lives alone in a simple tan house with an open porch. It's just across from Ida's on Main Street. On most afternoons, she can be found underlining Bible passages at her kitchen table, which is covered with a plastic table cloth and stacked with Christian reference books.
After Sept. 11, about 30 people, mostly elderly, showed up for her Sunday service. Record attendance. ''This is not the end of the world - yet,'' she told them. They asked how someone could decide to murder so many. And how could God allow it? And what should we make of Islam? Baker studied hard, reading scripture, Christian and lay press articles, Internet sites on religion. She concluded that 9/11 was a sign from God that the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ were approaching. She recalls preaching: ''Is it going to happen next year, today, tomorrow, five years from now? Jesus said man will not know the time or date.''
Baker did not say, however, that God directed the terrorists. She believes in free will. The hijackers ''chose to do evil,'' she said. But God, she said, knew it would happen. In fact, the terrorists helped Baker illustrate her main point: Those accepting Christ would be saved. The terrorists followed Islam, a dangerously belligerent and false religion, she said. But they could have been saved. ''They were still people and still had a need for love and for hope,'' she said during a recent interview, tears beginning to trickle from her eyes. ''Maybe some of them knew what they were doing. Maybe some of them were led astray, as we all can be. And that makes me cry that there are people who do not know the way of eternal life.''
But she told her congregants that outreach was needed closer to home. There were souls to save next door. ''For the most part, Americans have thrown off control,'' she said. ''Wait, that's not the word. Boundaries. The boundaries are all blurred.'' Baker talked regularly with her friend Ron Emery at United Methodist around the corner. His church is the town's pillar, founded in 1887 by the Shank family. Where Baker's church has simple wood paneling and a lone dark wood cross, United Methodist has lush red cushion-lined pews, colorful stained-glass windows, and a mural of a mountain behind the altar. It also has almost quadruple the attendance. In the days after Sept. 11, congregants asked Emery about the TV sermons they had seen. Was 9/11 God's judgment against America? Did the fourth plane crash in Shanksville for a reason? ''I didn't have an answer for their questions,'' Emery said. ''I wrestled with it.'' They asked: ''How could God let this happen?'' He replied: ''Some things we can't answer. . . . As humans, we want to know the answers to everything. Yet life goes on even if we're not given the answers.''
Emery, 47, speaks slowly, deliberately, rubbing his salt-and-pepper beard. He formerly worked as a factory supervisor but experienced a midlife calling. He arrived in Shanksville at the same time as Baker. On Sept. 11, he rejected Baker's apocalyptic warnings. But churchgoers persisted, wondering how God could have no role in such an earth-shattering event. ''If anything, it has made us more aware of each other, maybe internationally but also locally,'' he recalls preaching. ''If God used 9/11 for a purpose, maybe that's it.'' He urged open arms - for neighbors, for foreigners, for Muslims. And he asked his flock to consider even the terrorists. ''They were people,'' he told them. ''They had happy and unhappy moments growing up in childhood. They went through some of the same agonizing that we do as we become adults.'' As the weeks went by, Emery found himself functioning as psychiatrist as much as pastor. World War II veterans populate his congregation.
Many reacted strongly to 9/11, breaking down in tears for the first time in decades, requiring counseling. Others began to ponder how to memorialize the 40 passengers lost on Flight 93. Some dealt with dozens of media inquiries. The town was run ragged.
A focal point
Just around the six-month anniversary, Emery developed an upper-respiratory infection. He lost his voice. He could not preach. He remembers: ''I asked God, `Was 9/11 all I was brought here for?' Now that it was over, did He want me to stop speaking?''
Meanwhile, a dedicated group of town volunteers began staffing the temporary memorial emerging near the crash site. Some spent dozens of hours there every week. ''There are people in the community that have become obsessed with it,'' Emery said. ''They can't leave it alone. It's become almost a focal point.'' The temporary memorial sits on a tiny outcropping about a half-mile from the crash site, which remains fenced off but otherwise indistinguishable from the grass plain around it. Two flags flap in the wind, next to a large wooden cross. Forty red-white-and-blue angel statues commemorate the fallen passengers. Handmade wood and granite plaques are wedged into the ground. One from the University Park Church of God youth group from nearby Johnstown reads: ''John 15:13 - Greater Love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.'' There is a 10-foot-high fence, adorned with tributes: flags, rosaries, license plates (one from Hawaii reads, "SEE YA"), baseball caps, rocks, flowers, toy cars, toy planes, stuffed bears, signed baseballs, Virgin Mary statuettes, Bibles, a police officer action figure. Everything flutters in the wind. A laminated card shows the Virgin Mary towering over the smoking World Trade Center, as if to extinguish the flames. An 8-by-11 photo of a rainbow descending on the Shanksville crash site reads, ''Do not mourn for me; for above this rainbow I walk on streets of gold.'' A knee-high crucifix is plastered with newspaper photos of the twin towers; a toy plane has been glued to it; a bracelet marked ''Flying Hi'' adorns it.
Every so often, the local historical and genealogical society collects the items for storage. A permanent memorial remains in the planning stage. And in front of it all is the field: wide, open, wind rippling though grass, sky gaping above. The dozens of people visiting on any given day begin simply by staring out into it. All 40 passengers have been identified from bits of DNA. But 90 percent of their remains are still in the field, according to the Somerset County medical examiner's office.
Over the months, discussion about Sept. 11 in Shanksville grew muted. Townsfolk considered the competing interpretations from Baker and Emery. And they formed their own theories. ''God allowed it to happen to get our attention,'' said Margaret Croyle, 77. ''He's saying it's time to yield our lives to the Lord, to live holy lives.'' Richard Custer, 84, who lives in a trailer a half mile from the crash site, said: ''There's a war out in the spiritual world between God and Satan. 9/11 was Satan's doing.'' But both Emery and Baker realized religious interpretation of Sept. 11 was too complicated, too personal. They did their best. But Shanksville had to move on. ''Some things we can't answer,'' Emery said. ''But we can't let our fears rule our lives. We can't let our memories rule our lives.''
Baker held Bible study on a recent night. Stars and a half-moon rose above the rolling green hills. She left the church's front door open. Eight congregants placed their hands on an elderly woman. Baker, closing her eyes, swaying, almost in tears, began chanting about death. Another joined in, mumbling about Satan. Then another, and another, a droning, discordant buzz of whispers and murmuring. Then silence. Watching her flock walk out into the muggy summer night, Baker said there was a peace among them. They knew: Salvation awaited. But their minds no longer dwell on the event, one year ago on a clear morning, that shook their countryside. ''I have a woman fighting liver cancer, another man who just avoided amputation of his leg,'' she said. ''People are dying, people are getting married.'' And people, she said, will continue to wonder about God's role in their world.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.