By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

This Saturday, we will mark the 20th anniversary of a defining day for modern Americans: Every one of us old enough to remember Tuesday, September 11, 2001 has the details of it seared on our memories.

I had just started law school at the University of Texas in Austin. I was rushing to my early morning Civil Procedure class when I saw a large group of students gathered around the big screen television in the student lounge area. At that point, the first plane had struck the World Trade Center, but the enormity of what was happening had not sunk in. By the time of the break in our 2-hour class, we were in shock at the unfolding tragedy taking place in front of our eyes. Our normally very stoic and tough professor, who was a native New Yorker, was visibly shaken. The events of that day undoubtedly bonded me more closely to my classmates and professors, and that day widened our perspective about the relative importance of our first-year law studies. After air traffic had been halted for a few weeks, I remember being at an outdoor concert and hearing the roar of a jet plane flying overhead for the first time in a while. We cheered at our national resilience and, with tears in our eyes, understood that life would never be the same for us and for our country.

I am grateful for our friends and partners at IFYC (Interfaith Youth Core) for sponsoring a moving program this week. The interfaith panel of advocates reflected on their personal stories of where they were on 9/11 and how the events of the day impacted them personally and spiritually and had influenced the trajectory of their lives since. Some endured personal loss. Dr. Robert Klitzman’s sister died at the World Trade Center. Valarie Kaur shared how she dealt with the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend who died in a hate crime in the wake of 9/11. He was one of many Sikhs who were targeted because their religious garb resembled the images shown on the news of Osama bin Laden. Professor John Inazu described his first-hand account of being at the Pentagon when the plane struck the building and what it was like to continue to work there in the days immediately following the attack. Eboo Patel and Alia Bilal described their experiences as American Muslims, the impact of anti-Muslim bigotry and their callings to bring greater understanding of religious diversity and pluralism in their communities.

The panel used the word “trauma” to describe what they personally and we collectively as Americans experienced that day. We are sadly familiar with the way that our country has reacted to terror, including the increase in hate crimes and bigotry against our Muslim and Sikh neighbors. The inclination immediately after 9/11 — and in certain periods since — has been an attempt to curtail our civil liberties, including limiting religious freedom in the name of national security.

Our reactions to trauma and tragedy can be divisive, but they can also be unifying. BJC’s advocacy for Muslims, Sikhs and other neighbors from diverse backgrounds increased immediately after 9/11 and has been steady and constant for the past 20 years. We have worked in interfaith coalitions like Know Your Neighbor and the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign to stand up against anti-Muslim bigotry and violence.

While listening to the IFYC panel, I felt a swell of patriotic pride. These Americans — Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Muslim — were somber and yet optimistic about our abilities to come together in our differences to better understand and support one another. They shared their personal beliefs and explained how their faith traditions informed their response to tragedy and their activism for change. They embodied the truth that we do not need to have the same religion to be Americans. What unites us is not a single faith but rather our commitment to religious freedom.

The advocates also showed the power of sharing our stories with others, which can open us up to our shared humanity and unite us in our differences. At this time of remembrance for those we lost and what we have endured, I encourage you to share your story of 9/11 with another person and listen to their experience of it as well. If you are too young to remember it personally, share your experiences of life in a post-9/11 world. May we use this national day of mourning to improve our power of empathy and recognize our strength is in our diversity. May we recommit ourselves to standing firm against any religious bigotry and upholding faith freedom for all.

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.

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