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Reflections on Coming of Age in the Age of 9/11

09/11/2013 03:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013
  • Michael W. Waters Award-Winning Author of Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice, and Pop Culture; Founding Pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in Dallas, Texas

Each generation faces tragedies that shape its members and forever transform their worldview.

For my grandparents' generation, these were the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America's entry into World War II. For my parents' generation, these tragedies were the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Arguably, for my generation, our greatest tragedy was the terrorist attacks against America on September 11, 2001.

Like many Americans, the events of 9/11 are forever etched in my memory. I can readily recall what I was doing when I first received word that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. I was a senior in college, and the world as I had known it changed in an instant. Yet, I am tied to this tragedy beyond our collective witness of that terrible Tuesday morning. Three days later, I found myself addressing the tragedy on a national stage.

"And what do you think about all of this, Michael?"

Those were the final words directed to me by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw as I participated in a live televised interview on September 14, 2001. The interview centered on American college students' reaction to the tragic events of 9/11. Earlier that fateful week, on the evening of 9/11, I coordinated a candlelight vigil on my campus. It had been an emotionally trying week for us all. As the weekend approached, I looked forward to some needed rest.

After completing my last class that Friday afternoon, I walked a short distance home to my apartment to begin my weekend. However, almost as immediately as I crossed the threshold, my cell phone rang. I needed to come to the university's public affairs office at once! NBC had contacted the university, as Tom Brokaw wanted to interview college students from across the nation about the attacks. A university-wide call for recommendations for two students to represent our school yielded only my name and the name of the student body president. Hours later, I found myself in the NBC Dallas studio, staring directly into a camera lens, an earpiece sitting uncomfortably in my right ear, with Tom Brokaw's foreign yet familiar voice speaking to me.

After several questions to our panel, which included student representatives from two other schools, Mr. Brokaw honed in on one of my responses and immediately threw another question my way. In his questioning to our student panel, Mr. Brokaw had disparagingly referred to our generation as the "MTV generation." He openly questioned whether or not we would even be able to find Afghanistan on a map!

I was offended by his insinuations. Confidently (maybe even defiantly) I assured him that I was well aware of our history and of current events. Mr. Brokaw then asked me to expound my thoughts concerning the meaning of the week's events. As I readied myself to respond to Mr. Brokaw's inquiry, another student interrupted me to offer his unsolicited commentary. The interruption was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to gather my thoughts and to consider more fully the question Mr. Brokaw had posed.

As the other student concluded his statement, Mr. Brokaw redirected without hesitation, and said, "And Michael, what do you think about all of this?" I responded:

"Although this is, indeed, a horrific event, our generation can restore hope. I believe we are a mighty generation... a generation that's quite aware that we are inheriting a world with many troubles. ... Now we have the opportunity to make things right, and I value that opportunity, and I hope to play a very important role in the future."

More than a decade removed from that late-night interview, I continue to stand firmly behind my response. I am thoroughly convinced that my generation is rightly positioned to make a significant difference for the better within our world. I believe this because we are a generation that has had to overcome numerous threats to our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being just to make it to this point in life. We are a generation proven, tested, and committed to needed change.

Nowhere is this commitment represented more than in our generation's spirituality. Largely ostracized by a church establishment that condemned us and our culture yet largely failed to fulfill its core mission to reach "the least of these," we are committed to an authentic spirituality that endeavors to keep it real by placing a greater premium on what is done than simply on what is spoken.

The change that is needed in our nation and our world will not happen overnight. Nor will it be without struggle. But having matured as young adults in the age of 9/11, and having already experienced and survived the dissolution of family systems, the decline of the church, the decline of public education, the disintegration of community, and the revival of urban terrorism in America, if there is anything that my generation knows how to do, it is how to endure despite all the odds against us.

We are a mighty generation, and as our hope manifests in years soon to come, the world will know more clearly our determination and our strength.

May the fallen continue to rest in peace.