My Elevator Ride With 9/11 Hijackers

Nov 2, 2023Field Updates

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As the elevator doors opened, I was concerned to see three Arab men glaring at us.

Beside them stood three Arab women clad in black from head to toe. I paused, thinking, Is it safe?

Nonsense—we’re in the United States. Of course we’re safe, I reassured myself. We stuffed into the already-crowded elevator, and I resolved to befriend our new neighbors. But my friendly “hi” was only met with hostile stares.

It wasn’t until six months later, on September 11, 2001, that I realized how uncomfortable that elevator ride really was, and that their hostile stares revealed truly hostile intent.

Silent Glares

The morning of 9/11, my family and I were still on furlough from the mission field. I was reading an online Chilean newspaper when I saw the headline “Atentado Aéreo en Nueva York!” (Aerial Attack in New York). It seemed like the plot of some terrible film. It couldn’t be real, could it?

As I kept reading, the realization sank in. This had actually happened. My heart dropped, and I joined the rest of the world as we watched in collective horror.

A plane striking the World Trade Center.

Then, another.

Business people jumping from both towers to escape the raging inferno.

Courageous firefighters, police, and EMTs rushing to action despite the imminent danger.

All images we will never forget.

Our nation was desperate for answers. Officials soon discovered the identities of the hijackers, and I was shocked to see my apartment building on the television screen, followed by the imposing faces of the hijackers.

Familiar faces—the same faces that had glared at my family on the elevator. It hit me: we had been shut in that elevator, shoulder-to-shoulder, with some of history’s worst mass murderers.

I recalled our tense interactions with them—how my friendly hello was met with silent glares. And how my wife tried to break the ice with the women while doing laundry—only to be met with deliberate silence.

As I became aware of my growing dislike for this group of people, God’s Spirit began to challenge me.

Should a Christian ever feel this way? Should a missionary?

I Saw Mohamed Atta

Having seen their atrocities, I felt somehow justified. After all, this was Mohamed Atta. These men—our neighbors—had been in South Florida for the express purpose of training to destroy lives.

But the truth is, I was wrongly harboring an increasing resentment toward all followers of Islam.

Because of our missionary travels, we often encountered them in airports, and I felt offended every time I saw a man dressed comfortably, like me, but with his wife trailing six feet behind draped in black.

I remember a clarifying moment on a particular flight. As I watched one such man board our plane, something stirred inside me. Was it anger? Fear? Resentment? I couldn’t articulate it, but I began to wonder if it was right.

After all, I’m a missionary. I live overseas and have fallen in love with our adopted cultures.

Surely, I can’t be prejudiced against all Muslims.

Despite my belief that I loved all the people of the world, I was starting to paint all followers of Islam as hostile or terroristic—a realization that stopped me in my tracks. God showed me that, left unchecked, my feelings could inevitably lead to animosity for an entire people group, many of whom also despise terrorism.

My Transforming Prayer

I began to pray that God would change my heart. I wanted God to give me a love for those trapped and deceived by the lies of a false religion. I even added to my prayers: “Lord, if you can use me to serve them, I want to be your hands and feet.”

As a missionary in Latin America, I thought that there was little possibility of this ever happening. But I knew my heart had to be set right.

Sure enough, God answered my prayer and stirred in me a love for Muslims. Next, he moved us out of Latin America, and we’ve had the opportunity to minister in several Islamic contexts doing theological education.

While I’ve taught students around the world, these new believers have been my greatest delight, as they have eagerly soaked in every new truth from God’s Word.

Today, we work in the Middle East and live in an Islamic community—shopping with our neighbors, traveling with them, sharing food with them, and receiving our medical services from them. Quite a change for the person who once asked God to change his darkening heart.

Twenty years later, as I look back at my family’s brush with the terrorists, I shudder. I will never see the hijackers’ faces again. But when I looked into their eyes, I saw the ultimate end of the deception of evil.

God taught me that the malice growing in my heart was not fundamentally different from the malice in the hearts of wicked men like Mohamed Atta. We are all born in sin, cut off from God, restrained only by God’s mercy from acting on our every wicked impulse.

Now, by God’s grace, what was once a growing aversion toward a people group is a God-given, thriving compassion with the opportunity to live it out every day. Echoing Paul, it is my prayer that our love may abound more and more, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Phil.1:9–11).

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition on September 10, 2021. Used with permission.

Author: Rob McWilliams

Rob McWilliams (a pseudonym) serves as a missionary with ABWE. Having previously served in Latin America, Rob now works in the Middle East.

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