It was the second full day of classes in the fall 2001 semester at Boston University School of Theology. The basement lecture hall was filled with first year graduate students, cut off from the sunlight and the outside world for the duration of the 9 am church history class. These were the days before smartphones and wifi, and only the students in the last row could see the rest of us playing solitaire games on our laptops or palm pilots, but no one was checking Facebook or Twitter, or receiving push notifications. One student came in late, and we thought nothing of it.
At the break before the next class, the student who had come in late described what she’d heard on the radio during her drive: that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Only when we took our break, and some of us ran to the mailroom to huddle around the radio, and others to the Student Union to find a TV, did the unfolding story begin to emerge.
Shell-shocked and horrified, we gathered again for Intro to Hebrew Bible. Dr. Kathe Darr walked in, her black binder and stack of papers clutched in her thin arms. She placed her burden down on the table at the front of the room, just next to the table-top podium, and walked out in front of the assembled class.
“I won’t wish you good morning,” she said in a voice that sounded angry, “because it’s not.”
We shuffled in our seats.
“This,” she said, lifting a stack of printed pages up into our view, “is my lecture for today. Yes, it is important. Yes, the material will be on the midterm. No, I will not rearrange my syllabus to deliver it at another time. My TAs will have copies for you before the next class. I expect that you will all read them. Thoroughly.”
She walked back behind the table, placed the pages on top of the podium, and gripped its sides in her long-nailed fingers.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s pray.”
And pray we did. She prayed, we prayed, whoever wanted to prayed. Then we talked and expressed fear, and tried to help one another contact loved ones in New York and Washington. And we prayed some more.
Together with my undergraduate professor, Fr. Joe McCaffrey, Kathe would go on to teach me the large majority of what I know about the Hebrew Bible, about the visceral and strange Book of Ezekiel, about the Hebrew language, and no small amount about biblical interpretation, history, and hermeneutics.
But that day, she taught me in word and deed how to lead in the midst of fear and sorrow and impossible turmoil. She taught me to be kind and firm, flexible and disciplined, to assess my own gifts and shortcomings and the needs of my congregants, and respond quickly, decisively, and always compassionately. And to pray.