of Faith: The Effect of September 11 on a Christian College
By Delores Liesner
-- The name Todd Beamer became known across America on September 11, 2001.
Todd was one of those on United Airlines Flight 93 who apparently foiled efforts
of the hijackers and grounded the flight in rural Pennsylvania. His widow Lisa
was introduced at the Capitol when President Bush addressed Congress shortly after
the September 11 terrorist attacks.
was a Wheaton College alumnus -- as was Jason Oswald, working just above where
American Airline Flight 11 struck the south tower of the World Trade Center. Jason
had just moved to New York and had begun his job three months prior. On American
Airline's Flight 11 was the grandmother of Jacob Anderson, a current student at
Wheaton, and Rev. Jeffrey Malednik, a Wheaton grad-school alumnus and pastor at
Christ Church of Oakbrook, Illinois.
Thus in that single moment in time,
hundreds of college students and faculty, and thousands of lives in and around
Wheaton, Illinois, were immediately, deeply, and personally affected.
great majority of Wheaton's 18 to 22-year-old students were unfamiliar with death
-- in any form -- and understandably sensitive to such a world catastrophe --
especially one that so personally touched them. These classmates, friends, and
family members had names. Jeff left a widow, four children, and his church family;
Jason, his fianc and both of their families. Todd's widow Lisa had three children,
was expecting, and has since delivered their fourth child; Jacob's grandmother,
who had been visiting family in Boston, left a void with many AIDS patients, the
Big Brothers/Big Sisters program where she ministered, her five children including
Jacob, and many more grandchildren. Like ripples in a pond from a single pebble,
the ring of friends, relatives, fellow-students, and other lives that were touched
is ever widening.
The ripples, however, began long before September 11th
as Jeff, Jason, Todd, and Jacob's grandmother each made peace with God at various
points in their lives. Particularly because of those personal relationships, Wheaton's
Chaplain Kellough shared with me, staff and counselors found comfort that the
student's responses to their grief were underscored with hope.
into an abyss of crossroads, the students were, he felt, "Looking for ways to
use their spiritual resources." Compelled as all of America to watch the tragedy
unfold, students were grieving at the personal loss -- not only for Wheaton and
themselves, but for the world, and "they immediately began thinking more seriously
about their faith, using the time of mourning, seeking help, and seeking God for
peace." Immediately they left their classrooms, rushing to join the faculty who
stood like sentinels, lining the perimeter of the chapel, so students could approach
them for prayer.
This was truly an "American moment," for there were no
distinctions at Wheaton that day -- student and staff, class and rank were one
in spirit, for all were grieving. Time would show this was no temporary detour
-- it was a complete and life-changing U-turn for hundreds of students. Staff
and the campus community alike witnessed the beginning sparks in the chapel that
day. Following an open invitation to come to the microphones and share comfort,
scores upon scores of students lined up immediately to share Scripture they had
memorized or to read Scriptures of comfort and hope. Hours later, that first memorial
service was closed in unison as throughout the chapel tens of students who had
not made it to the microphones turned to those next to them, and communicated
through the Scriptures the comfort of God to all who had gathered together. The
spirit of unity, and the cacophony, and fervor of hundreds of voices corporately
sharing Scripture was, Chaplain Kellough shared, not unlike what he imagined might
be experienced in heaven.
But the students' "heavenly changes" had just
begun. Emotionally drained staff members were amazed at the number of services
the students initiated as they saw the need for prayer and worship. The campus
where Jason Oswald (described by many as a very godly man) and his best friend
were alumnus hosted a Saturday memorial service officiated by Holy Trinity Church
of Hyde Park, the church Jason attended. The following Monday, a chapel service
was a tribute to the memory and honor of those four lost by Wheaton's family and
the world. Sue Malednik, three of her four children, and Jeff's mother joined
the memorial service where Sue touchingly commented how proud Jeff was of being
a graduate of the grad school, and of wearing his Wheaton college ring -- even
that fateful day. Lisa Beamer was looked up to as a courageous and unique person
who was given supernatural grace and strength to be able to set aside her own
grieving as she was asked on Larry King, Oprah, and other programs to speak of
her faith, Todd's faith, and his character in light of the unusual tragedy and
Lisa's faith in action inspired the students to continue their spiritual turnabout.
But the students did not stop at inspiration alone. United, their focus galvanized
as they held several other special services with as many as 600 students attending
individual services. It became obvious to family, friends, staff and community
that the students were finding the need for a devotional life more important than
before. Suddenly, the chaplain noted, small groups were a more important priority
and the Scriptures were more compelling. "Another thing that struck me," Chaplain
Kellough shared, "was how their actions demonstrated their interest in debunking
consumerism and materialism by affirming their spiritual resources. Like a light
at a crossroad, the students showed the way to many, first centering on their
spiritual relationship to God, then as well to what they could do -- quickly responding
to First Timothy 2, verses 1 and 2; 'I urge, then, first of all, that requests,
prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone -- for kings and all
those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness
and holiness' by praying for their leaders, and praying more fervently than ever
for peace in the world."
Then the dramatic U-turn of the students of Wheaton
College took on a more personal aspect, for Chaplain Kellough described how the
students experienced personal revival. Devouring Scripture and given constantly
to prayer, they opened themselves to self-evaluation and they rediscovered how
Jesus called them to be peacemakers. Unafraid of scrutiny, and putting their new
enlightenment into action, student after student called or went home, repairing,
affirming, and developing closer personal relationships with parents and siblings,
as well as friends.
Through these students and the staff, Wheaton College's
mission and ministry goal, to integrate faith and learning, was maximized and
lived out during the days following September 11. Although some urban schools
closed campuses for security purposes, Wheaton deliberately did not, allowing
students and faculty to process all that happened in the light of faith, allowing
for prayer and discussion, using the particular discipline of each course, finding
the Christian response to war and tragedy. Consequently, students' reaction was
that they will forever look at the world in a different way, for such an attack
on humanity was a revelation to them of the fallenness of the world. The evil
efforts of those who wanted to use the tragedy for their own financial benefit,
developing scams within 24 hours that pretended to be collecting money for relief,
shocked them and was a grim reminder of the depth of evil in our world today.
But, at the same time, they were touched at the contrasts in a multitude of reports
of the love of God shown through people with acts of genuine caring and love.
"These events, though difficult, gave us a realistic view of our world,"
said the obviously sensitized Wheaton students -- intent on a new mission. Desiring
to do relief work or help those who were struggling in New York, Pennsylvania,
Washington, and other parts of the world, students responded immediately by changing
previous decisions concerning their spring and summer plans. Individually and
collectively they began prioritizing and re-evaluating priorities of life -- both
short and long term. Unashamed, telling how they now felt called by God to serve
Christ in some work of compassion and relief for victims of hardship, hundreds
of students vocalized and demonstrated that the material things they had been
going after "are now unimportant -- the goal of a big salary and a nice house
were no longer the priority."
A sense of urgency for evangelism pervaded
the campus, for the need was seen so much more dramatically as people filled the
churches, seeking for resources of faith. "It was comforting," Chaplain
Kellough assured me, "to watch those good things happening in light of all
the bad they'd just experienced."
Despite the exhausting and demanding
time as their link to God as the pastor of Wheaton College, or perhaps because
of it, Kellough acknowledged a spiritual deepening himself, citing an intensified
personal prayer life, and experiences of an "unusual, very-present strength and
source of help in the Lord within the unusually increased workload."
Kellough recalled crying out to God for words to comfort the entire campus, he
also recalled how it all began -- immediately after the planes hit the trade center
and the pentagon: "Even that first question on everyone's mind of, "Why can such
a thing as this happen?" -- was bypassed, he marveled, as students asked instead
-- "Who? "Who do we go to in times like these?"
Their conclusion -- a firm
and unshakable resolve -- "There is only one place to go to and that is God" was
inspiring. Inspiring because it is true, but also inspiring because those young
students were open and honest enough to turn from their present course and redirect
every area of their personal lives to pleasing and serving God.
resolve and their God is still active today as these never-the-same students head
toward their former career goals with new and deeper perspectives and goals. Oh
yes, they will still be lawyers, teachers, pastors, accountants, and everything
in between -- but their vocations are no longer just "jobs," for they have researched
well how they can serve in each area as ministers to those in need, while using
their talents to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the first to tell
you that the students of Wheaton College are moving forward on their new course.
Through their lives, their decisions, and their actions they say, "...although
there is much evil in this world there is still a loving God, and we need to look
to Him for help, for understanding, for comfort and direction."
has already experienced some of the life changes they have made as a result of
their resolve and commitments. Our world too, is beginning to bear their fruit
-- graduates of those who have tossed out into the waters of life their pebbles
of faith. Year by year, as each of these hundreds of students graduate and carry
their faith into the world, the ripples will broaden again and again.
can I be so certain of this? The Scriptures have promised it.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray
and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from
heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles
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Delores Liesner is a freelance writer who specializes in interviews, devotionals,
testimonies, and special occasion poetry.
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