We had a little extra time to kill between arriving in Oklahoma City and performing at Quail Springs Baptist Church today, so Doc decided that we should take a short stop at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. I didn’t know what it was all about, only that Doc had mentioned something about a terrorist attack in the 90’s, but as we wandered through the 9:03 gate and past the reflecting pool, a sense of awe came over me. I felt like a trespasser, like the beautiful space around me was meant for someone better or more worthy than I, someone who knew why the stone causeway and the 168 empty chairs were so moving and profound.
A few moments later, a man in an official uniform came by and explained to all of us how terrorists attacked the Murrah building in 1995, how 168 people died in the horror, and how the people of the city were devastated by their loss. Then he told us about the rescuers who toiled selflessly to save as many as they could, and about the survivors whose names were on the wall and how some of them waited a long time before they were even willing to have their name etched on the wall because of the effect the bombing had on them. He told us about the empty chairs and the survivor tree and the fence and the children’s wall and the rescuer’s orchard and the 9:01 and 9:03 gates, and with every symbol that he explained the feeling of wonder grew and condensed. The mysterious awe changed into a deep appreciation for all that the people of Oklahoma City had lost in that one moment, 9:02 AM on April 19, 1995, and all that they had done to preserve that moment in their collective memory, to face the darkness and the terror of that moment and transform it into a symbol of hope, resilience, and restoration.
I’m reading Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” right now, and in that book he spends a lot of time talking about stories, and how our lives are stories and we ought to seek out ways that we can make our stories more meaningful and memorable and powerful. The story of 9:02 AM, April 19, 1995 is one of heartbreak, death, and evil, but the story of 9:03 tells how the people of Oklahoma overcame that tragedy, banded together, and reached out to others who have endured terrible things to show them that, while evil is active in the world, good is more powerful. That story, encapsulated so vividly in the OCNM Outdoor Symbolic Monument, is one that will live on forever in my memory and in the hearts of survivors all over the world who hear it.
As our guide finished his explanations, he told us that there is a way for visitors to take part in the memorial. He said that if we wanted to identify ourselves with the survivors, the rescuers, and the victims, if we wanted to pledge ourselves to promoting life and restoration and good, then we could dip our hands in the reflecting pool and make a hand print on the 9:03 gate. I put my palm down into the gently flowing water, raised it up to the dark metal surface of the gate, and felt the coolness of the air and the water and the metal against my hand as they touched. I waited a few moments, then pulled back my hand and watched the dark print drip and morph and slowly fade. I knew that I could never fully know what it was like to experience 9:02, to be a permanent part of the memorial there, but I also knew that, by placing my hand print on the 9:03 gate, I could connect for just a moment with that memory and know that while everything changed for the people of Oklahoma City in that one moment of 9:02, it was 9:03 and the days and weeks that followed that saw them come together and create a thing of beauty over the site of their greatest pain. May we always remember that pain, and may it always spur us on to fight for that triumph and beauty and restoration. God knows that our world needs it.