The last time I visited New Orleans, I strolled the French Quarter while listening to street performers blow jazz tunes on beat-up saxophones and stopped by the famous Café Du Monde to eat sugary beignets. It was the first time in four or five visits to the city that I'd acted like a tourist. It wasn't just because my previous visits were reporting trips; it's because they were all post-Katrina.
Even as I grew to love the city, I believed what locals told me: I'd never know New Orleans "the way it used to be."
I had a similar experience on my last visit to New York City. Ice skaters still twirled at Central Park and dinosaur fossils still towered at the American Museum of Natural History, but I knew things must be different. All my visits here were post-tragedy too---post-9/11, as we've come to divide American history.
As 9/11 memorial events spring up around New York City and the country, I wondered how cities change in the face of tragedies that bring them to their knees. I quickly realized: probably in a thousand ways. But out of all the changes, at least two threads emerge: sobriety and hope.
Even people in New Orleans---a city not traditionally famous for sobriety---still seem sobered by the hurricane that leveled wide swaths of their town and displaced half their population. Yes, Bourbon Street is still in business, but so are churches. And though widespread revival hasn't broken out on the Gulf Coast, I've met handfuls of people who are interested in Christianity for the first time because Christians showed up to give them help they couldn't merit or repay. For those who realized this is a picture of God's grace, the vision was sobering and hopeful.
The tragedy that struck New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, has a far darker edge because it was intentional: Evil men woke up eight years ago today planning to commit mass murder on unsuspecting citizens, and they succeeded.
William Shishko, pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square on Long Island, watched part of that evil unfold from LaGuardia Airport. The long-time New York pastor was supposed to take a flight that morning, but when the airport quickly shut down, he moved outside. What he saw was breathtaking: the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. A few days later, he described the experience: "It was like watching the death of a patriarch."
Now eight years later, Shishko comes back to one word when he thinks about how New York has changed: He says the city is more "sobered." But it's not just because of 9/11. As the city regained its footing over the last few years, it recently faced another blow---along with the rest of the country---in the form of a near financial collapse that hit hard for many New Yorkers, especially in the once-mighty business district.
For Shishko's own congregation, it's all had a layered effect: "A sobering about the way the Lord deals with a nation, a sobering about the power of radical Islam, and a sobering about how quickly financial prospects can change."
But a thread of hope runs through, as well, he said. Though terrorism and extremism are real, so is the gospel. "We realize that the only solution for terrorism, really, is the gospel---there's got to be reconciliation in Christ," he says. "That has probably intensified our commitment---not just to bringing the gospel to Muslims---but our commitment to the gospel, period."
For residents in New York and New Orleans---and cities around the world---how they view the hope of the gospel will directly determine how they view sobering providences. There will always be those who respond like one Ninth Ward resident in New Orleans who scrawled two words on the front door of his flood-wracked house: "Damn Katrina." And because of the gospel, there will be others---like the Ninth Ward neighbor two doors down---who scrawled this on his swollen front door: "Saved by God."