Listen To Article
On 9/11 last year I was living in the Hague, Netherlands and serving a congregation founded several decades ago by Reformed Church in America pastors. My background is Christian Reformed, not RCA, but I took some pride in the work of those pastors, which has borne a great deal of fruit over the years.
The name of the church is the American Protestant Church in the Hague (APCH.nl), but the day when Americans comprised a majority of members is long past. Today the congregation has members from a few dozen nations, and seeing such a diverse congregation on Sunday mornings was always (and pleasantly) astonishing to me. Still, the name endures – that word “American” – as well as the impression it creates.
To have the word “American” in the church name, to my surprise, turned out to be (mostly) a good thing. In my first weeks, for example, a refugee family from Ukraine began to worship with us – a mom, dad, and three teenage children. They told me they came the first Sunday because they had a favorable view of Americans, the result of our support in their war with Russia. (I would like to think they continued to worship with us for other reasons.) Others, to my surprise, found their way to us not because of our support for the war in Ukraine, but because of other good work our country has done around the world. Frankly, I was glad to hear so much good will expressed toward our country.
As the interim pastor of a church with the word “American” in its name, I was invited to do a few unexpected things throughout the year, like participating in a 9/11 commemoration organized for American expats. Later in the fall, I was invited to participate in an American Thanksgiving service at the Pieterskerk in Leiden, few miles north of the Hague. I had initial misgivings about both of these events, but learned something valuable because I went.
My initial misgivings, I confess, were mostly the result of a previous experience of living and working in Europe. I served a church for five years in Zürich, Switzerland, before I retired. (That church had wisely chosen to use the word “international” in its name.)
American expats, I noticed, tended to live in a kind of expat bubble, hanging around mostly with other Americans, sending their children to American schools, not learning the local language, and not mingling much with the local population. To be fair, if their overseas assignment was to last only a year or two, they must have felt little incentive to mix. Living in a foreign culture can be challenging enough without adding loneliness to the equation. Still, my impression was that too many Americans, including military personnel stationed in Europe, keep to themselves.
That 9/11 commemoration a year ago was held at the American School of the Hague (a favorite place for Americans to send their children while living in or near the Hague), and participants in the commemoration included staff members of the American Embassy in the Hague. Because the U.S. Senate had failed to act on President Biden’s nomination for ambassador to the Netherlands (for reasons I no longer remember), there was no ambassador to invite. Instead, the main speaker was the charge d’affaires at the embassy who did a fine job with her remarks. Also with speaking parts were three U.S. Marines, who formed part of the security team for the embassy. I thought they did a fine job as well, reading stories about U.S. citizens who lost loved ones either in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I was proud to sit among them and say my prayer.
I have been referring to this event as a 9/11 “commemoration,” but most people who attended, I’m sure, thought of it as a “service,” which to me carries religious connotations. I prayed, it’s true, and I made it a Christian prayer, rather than a non-sectarian prayer, which is what I often hear in these situations. But the event was not worship. I was the only one who mentioned God. The aim of the event, I thought, was to gather in a particularly strong shared memory.
As I listened and participated, though, I had a change of heart about what we were doing. I still don’t think what we did was worship – unless it was worship of the U.S. – but something happened there last year. Or maybe something happened to me.
My memory of 9/11, which occurred more than 20 years ago, is still surprisingly vivid, as it is for many people. I remember calling my wife after the first plane struck the North Tower, mainly to check in, since I knew she was okay. Then I reminded myself that my daughters were safe at the high school they attended. Finally, for much of the morning, I sat with members of the church staff in the youth room, which was the only room at the church with a TV. We watched together in numbness, waiting for more information about what had happened, some sort of explanation.
As always when we came together, the staff talked about how best to care for our congregation. In this case we were talking about how to care for them in the wake of a national trauma. And so, we began to plan for a service that evening – worship, not commemoration. Our focus would be on God and all the assurances of God’s care and providence that we could cram into a single hour.
I don’t remember anything I said that evening, and I’m guessing no one else does either, though I did prepare a short sermon. What was important, in hindsight, was not what I said, but that we came together. The church was filled. Overflowing, in fact. And together we experienced something remarkable – at least for me. A community had come together to support each other and to find meaning, if there was any to be found. We were there for ourselves, of course, but also for each other.
At the commemoration last year, I felt a little of that once again. A community – of many faiths and no faith – came together to remember, to offer support, and to find meaning. It’s a rare thing these days to come together like that. And therefore precious.