B.G. Episcopal priest was seminary student in N.Y. on 9/11

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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A walk to ground zero

Local priest Jeremy Lucas talks about his experience as a seminary student in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

Local priest Jeremy Lucas talks about his experience as a seminary student in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

BATTLE GROUND — On his first day as a seminary student, Jeremy Lucas wrestled with God in a way he never expected.

“I was struck with such a desire for revenge, I was even surprised at myself,” said the Episcopal priest. “I just wanted somebody to pay.”

Lucas, the incoming priest at Battle Ground’s Church of the Holy Spirit on Northwest Ninth Avenue, was attending his first seminary class in lower Manhattan. Discussion was just starting up about a book called “Resurrection” and a section focusing on faith and forgiveness of terrorists — loving your enemies and turning the other cheek — when the whole world seemed to explode.

“Resurrection” is about Irish terrorists and the occupation of Northern Ireland; when Lucas emerged from class he learned that al-Qaida terrorists had flown two airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings a few blocks away.

“We didn’t know, when we were sitting in class, we were about to relive those words and questions on an intimate level,” Lucas said.

He and some friends, new arrivals in the Big Apple, had visited the World Trade Center site a week earlier but decided not to bother riding the elevator to the top. They figured they’d have years to make that particular pilgrimage, Lucas said.

Then, everything changed: the sirens that never stopped wailing, the fires that never stopped burning, the hot wind full of ash and paper, the massive destruction and death. One lesson Lucas learned from the tragedy is not to put off the experiences you want to have, not to postpone doing the things you feel you must do. You may not have all the time you expect, he said.

Lucas, a native of Birmingham, Ala., had just turned 30 on Sept. 10, 2001. (He turned 40 Saturday.) He had already worked as a personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney at a family law firm. He liked helping people and helping them find answers to their problems, he said.

“But after a while you realize that people’s problems are not entirely legal but of a deeper, spiritual nature,” he said.

Lucas said he abandoned the Southern Baptist faith because he thought it was intolerant of human differences; ultimately he was drawn to the Episcopal priesthood and headed to seminary in New York. “Birmingham is a nice city but New York is an incredible place,” he said.

His first day of school was Sept. 11, 2001.

Making peace

“We got out of class and obviously things were completely crazy,” he said. The Twin Towers had just fallen. The seminary decided to keep its students close to home, and Lucas spent time trying to contact his mother. He was in New York and his sister was a flight attendant on a regular flight from Boston to California, so Mom had plenty of reason to worry while phone lines were choked with traffic.

“She didn’t know where either one of us was,” said Lucas. Eventually both siblings contacted their mother and put her at ease.

That first day was when Lucas found himself grappling with hatred — the desire to repay suffering with more suffering.

On the second day, the seminary arranged for volunteers to head to a rescue worker relief station that was a few blocks from Ground Zero; it wasn’t possible to take mass transit or drive so eight seminary students walked south through Manhattan.

When they arrived at the relief station, ready to distribute water, coffee and food, there were no takers.

“The rescue workers just weren’t stopping,” Lucas said. “They were working as hard and as fast as they could. It was still considered a rescue operation then. Three thousand people were missing.”

After waiting an hour for someone to provide relief to, Lucas and his fellow students loaded up with supplies and made their way to Ground Zero. They met some Brooklyn police officers who eased them through security checkpoints they weren’t supposed to pass. And they arrived at their destination: an otherworldly landscape Lucas didn’t know how to size up.

“We were walking through ash up to our ankles,” he said. “There was clothing and all sorts of things hanging in the trees. It was very eerie. The pile of rubble was 10 stories tall. It was something your mind can’t quite comprehend.”

The next day, the seminary decided to get back to business. Lucas returned to class and the impossibly relevant topic at hand: faith, forgiveness and terrorism. “It was hard to concentrate,” he said.

But it was easy to conclude that revenge would not be sweet.

“That experience of being there, providing help, really started to influence the way I read all of the Bible and the words of Jesus,” he said. “When you have been standing in the midst of rubble because someone has tried to kill you, that’s a different conversation about loving your enemy than if … somebody cut you off in traffic.”

The horror he witnessed didn’t make him more wrathful, he said; rather, it repulsed him and made him hungry for peace.

“As I started to reflect, I never wanted anybody in the world to ever have to experience the pain of digging family members out from under a building. It directed my faith. It challenged me. It wasn’t, what kind of God would allow this, but that your faith wills you to stand up and voice this different understanding of the call of the Gospels.”

An act of horrific violence turned Lucas — a former self-described “Rush Limbaugh dittohead” who once started a college Young Republicans club — into a left-leaning peace activist. He started a peace fellowship at his Manhattan seminary; he attended war protests in Washington, D.C.; he went to Israel and Palestine as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interdenominational nonviolence movement; he organized a counter-protest that completely overwhelmed a Ku Klux Klan march back in Athens, Ala., where he went as a newly minted priest.

Dry and wet

Lucas spent three years as a missionary in Namibia; he just arrived in Battle Ground on Sept. 1. His fiancée, Siobhan, and her 7-year-old daughter, Erin, are soon to follow.

Battle Ground is a relatively conservative community, Lucas acknowledged, but he is confident that his congregation will accept his progressive views and his deepened faith. Alabama is twice as conservative as Battle Ground, he noted, and Namibia is twice as conservative as Alabama. As a native Southerner, he said, he’s blessed with that regional gift of gab and an interest in finding common ground with people no matter their politics.

“People want black and white answers — you’re a peace person or you’re a war person — but you can believe in peace, justice, hope and nonviolence without alienating people. I think humans are much more complex than that. If we use our brains, we won’t slip into these simple arguments,” he said.

Lucas plans to emphasize outreach and community service in his new church, he said. He wants to get involved with the local food bank and low-income medical clinic. And he’s thinking about a blessing of the animals and even a blessing of the bicycles as a way of embracing the Pacific Northwest’s outdoorsy culture — precipitation and all.

“It’s a great place. I’ve lived in the desert for the last three years,” he said. “I’m ready to rehydrate.”