In the Bunting-Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center, a solitary green candle burns bright. Sharon Kugler, university chaplain, lit the candle as a symbol of hope in the wake of the catastrophic events of Sept. 11. Amid the fear and anger, Kugler says, the response of the Johns Hopkins community has given her much cause to hope.
The Sept. 13 memorial vigil for victims of the terrorist attack was a tearful gathering that brought together about 1,500 Hopkins faculty, students and staff. And hundreds of students have sought out the Interfaith Center, either to attend services there, or for silent personal prayer.
A week removed from the recent events, The Gazette sat down with Kugler to talk about how the university has come together in a time of great tragedy.
Gazette: It doesn't appear as if the pain and shock are going to go away anytime soon.
Kugler: I think that is hard in and of itself, because oftentimes when something shocking happens, one waits to return to normal. You think you can wait out the tough times and the grieving process and things will be normal again. And I think one of the toughest things for us to come to grips with is that things aren't going to return to normal as we knew it. This loss--how it has affected us-- will always be with us. Something that I said to students was that this has forever changed us, but it doesn't necessarily mean it has to have changed us for the worse.
Gazette: As you have witnessed it, what has been the student response to the tragedy?
Kugler: On Tuesday there was a fairly steady stream of students coming through who were either waiting to hear of news because they had family in New York, or they were stunned by what they were hearing. They were looking at television monitors with these images that didn't even seem real. Many people came just to sit quietly here at the Interfaith Center, upstairs in the nave. They were looking for somewhere quiet to be still. Also, when the news first hit, students sought out members of their own groups to kind of reconnect and pray together in some sort of tradition that was familiar. I had nothing of any wisdom to say to anyone--I could only extend my arms.
Gazette: What were services like the weekend following the attacks?
Kugler: They were full. Every tradition. A phenomenal amount of people attended services. For Rosh Hashanah services, the entire nave was full, as well as the Glass Pavilion. People are seeking out time with their God and community.
Gazette: What are people looking for, in your opinion?
Kugler: I think people know better than to look for answers in a place of worship. I think the things they are looking for are community, compassion and a sense of togetherness, whether it is the familiarity of a service, or a certain prayer that is unique to a particular tradition. As a human family, we are seeking out each other. I was just remembering the vigil on the Gilman Quad. I was amazed at the number of people who stayed after. There was this yearning to keep connected with other people who are also feeling this tragedy so intensely. There was a certain kind of intimacy that we all shared. It isn't something we do easily here at Hopkins, to kind of take ourselves away from our duties, our jobs, our intellectual pursuits. We just don't do it. But on that Thursday, because we gathered, we gave ourselves permission to do it.
Gazette: You talked at the vigil about what remains to be done by those of us left behind. What remains?
Kugler: Reaching out to each other. Being gentle with each other. I really believe that if we take anything from this, we ought to take the lesson of how it is we treat our fellow human beings. We see heroic things happening. We saw it in New York. We hear about it in the news. People sacrificing themselves for others. I can't look at this any other way but as an opportunity to be a better people. Being angry is natural. Wanting to fight back is a normal response. At the same time, it doesn't bring back those that are lost. But looking to a more deliberate way of being on this earth, that takes into account the needs of our fellow human beings, that takes us outside of ourselves. That is a response that we can grow from and begin to heal.
Gazette: One purpose of the Interfaith Center is to bring together different religions so that those who come here can have a better understanding of another person's faith and religious customs. Certainly, in light of what happened, there needs to be more of that in the world.
Kugler: And it isn't easy. But what we learn here at the Interfaith Center is that we have more in common with each other than we think. The basic tenets of our faith are about caring for your neighbor, are about love and compassion. I think when people put aside the stereotypes that we might have of each other, and really get to a deeper level of understanding of what is the essence of one's faith tradition, they can't view each other as strangers anymore. At the Interfaith Center, we don't look to blend everyone together and say this is one happy religion; really, the point of the place is to allow each religious tradition to be lifted up on its own. Each tradition has a beauty, majesty and mystery that is a gift to the world.
Gazette: It must anger you, in some sense, that religion has even been brought into this.
Kugler: It just fries me. Terrorist acts are not religious acts. They are acts of hate and of ignorance and fraught with complete disregard for God's creation. Every time you hear these atrocities attributed to Islam, this beautiful religion is being misrepresented. The basic elements of our world's faith traditions are peace, love and caring, not terror and hate.
Gazette: What has been the response from Muslim students at Hopkins?
Kugler: We have a significant population of Muslim students, and I would say there are probably two reactions. Horror over what happened ... a need to reach out to people who were affected by this. And the second is fear that there would be some retaliation toward them. It was the Muslim student group that initiated the student-led prayer service [on Sept. 14]. They approached the leader of the Jewish community and a number of the Christian leaders to ask them to participate. I was enormously proud of them that they did that and that they initiated it.
Gazette: Beyond the talk of war, what fallout from these events most concerns you? What gives you hope?
Kugler: Each day people are faced with a new fear and new reality that wasn't in their field of view just days ago. We are noticing a sort of ripple effect, and it fills us with uncertainty. At the same time, my hopefulness comes from knowing that people show their best in times of crisis. People that you least expect find the strength they didn't know they had to help others who are weaker to get through things. And my hope is this happens exponentially across this country. It seems like the barriers between people have been broken down a bit, because we have all been struck by this. My prayer is this gets us back to a basic understanding of our need to care for one another.
Gazette: For people still coming to terms with all this, what do you suggest they can do for themselves?
Kugler: Maybe cherish each day a little bit more. I don't want that to sound morbid, as much as I want it to sound hope-filled ... that this event has jarred us into that place where our senses have brought us more in tune to the world around us.
Gazette: What is the hardest question you've had to contend with regarding the events of Sept. 11?
Kugler: I think my own children are frightened for their safety. Are they safe? And I think that is probably a question that everyone in the deep recesses of their gut probably has asked. Because if you had said two weeks ago that this could have happened, people would have thought that is absurd--a commercial airliner used as a weapon, into a building? It just boggles the mind. I have to be honest, I don't know that I have come across cosmic questions about this as much as I've come across cosmic revelations. People are just so stunned that they've peeled away a layer of distance from themselves and someone else. I've seen a level of opening up that I have never seen on this campus. I think the universality of this has brought that home to all of us.