Faith on Earth - Fall 2002 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Fall 2002

Faith on Earth

By Dinty W. Moore


It is ironic, perhaps, that Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, a south central Pennsylvania town of 245 people. If you had to pick a spot that seemed to have nothing in common with the sites of the other 9/11 crashes, New York and Washington, you might pick this town exactly, a place distant from such urban centers not only in miles but also in character and tone. Shanksville is not just off the main highway, it is off the secondary highways as well, nestled in a pocket of rural Somerset County few people ever happen to visit. You would not stumble upon Shanksville unless you were specifically headed there. I am not a native of this area, but rather a transplant, an urbanite. But after 12 years living in these hills, there are a few things I have noticed and come to understand, at least to understand the way a careful observer might. Chief among my understandings is that faith is not a concept here, not an abstract notion. Faith is an action verb. One reason for this is the farms, the crops, the annual watch for rain. Here, the hand of God is always apparent, at the surface of things. And God's hand is often stunning: even in the midst of a midsummer drought, one cannot help but be struck by the incredible greenness of the Shanksville area, the rolling hills, the lush trees, the glacier-shaped Appalachian vistas.

It is not just a cliché to say that people in central Pennsylvania are closer to the earth. They are. Compared to the cities and suburbs I previously knew, homes here are closer to the earth, jobs are closer to the earth, recreation is usually tied to the earth, and survival often depends directly on earth and weather. Here, everyone hunts, and if you are not a farmer or descended from farmers, chances are you work the mines or are descended from miners.

Yet, Shanksville is no stranger to tragedy. Founded in 1798 by Christian Shank, a German immigrant with religion in his very name, the small settlement needed faith to outlast a devastating diphtheria epidemic; an 1859 "big frost" that destroyed fruits, vegetables, and grain and left many with nothing to eat; an 1899 fire that nearly destroyed the town; and a violent 1917 cyclone. Moreover, Shanksville is just 24 miles southeast of Johnstown, the flood city. Coal mining disasters — both recent and distant — are part of the fabric of this area as well.

Flight 93 came down in a reclaimed strip mine. Some 11 months later, the memorial site still looks like something that was thrown up by two carpenters the day after the tragedy. It probably WAS thrown up in a hurry, by volunteers, just as so many front yards here display crude wooden crosses, Virgin Mary statues, spontaneous shrines. At the current memorial, a section of cyclone fence is draped with crucifixes, rosaries, holy cards, and hundreds of handwritten placards: "God Bless America," "God Bless Flight 93," "God Bless Our Heroes," "God Bless Us All."

Plans are under way for a more permanent memorial, though no design has been set. My experience with urban memorials is that they are polished, slick, sophisticated — think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. It would be a shame if such a memorial were imposed here, in Shanksville. It simply wouldn't fit.

I am no designer, so all I can say is that I hope the final plans reflect the place as well as the tragedy. I hope those aboard Flight 93 are well remembered, and I hope too that the hundreds of spontaneous, handwritten, hand-painted, hand-carved items left here in the past 11 months remain in place. I hope the final plan is not too slick, sophisticated, polished.

This is a rural area, after all. People build things themselves here. Out of trees.


Dinty W. Moore, a professor of English at Penn State Altoona, is the author of The Accidental Buddhist.