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Nine years after Sept. 11 attacks, widow forgives, won't forget

Renee Nolan-Riley usually relies on the teachings of Jesus Christ to guide her through grief and anger. So she knows Jesus has little use for anger or revenge or hate.

Love your enemies, he said.

But Renee, a Wichitan, is a 9/11 widow; her husband, Dan Nolan, died in the World Trade Center attack. And on Friday, nine years later, she lost her temper.

"I am shocked at the news reports this week and how they change daily," she wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle. "The arrogancy of the preacher speaking on behalf of the 9/11 families is an outrage to say the least. I was ready to phone him last night and give him my opinion."

The preacher she was referring to, the head of a tiny congregation in Gainesville, Fla., is still threatening to burn the Quran today. It's Islam's most holy book, and the preacher wants to protest against the Islamic faith.

Renee, whose husband died at the hands of extremists claiming some hold on the Muslim faith, is disgusted with the Florida preacher for a number of reasons. Torching a Quran could inflame terrorism and endanger U.S. servicemen who went into battle after her husband and thousands of others were murdered. And burning another faith's book is a betrayal of the Christian faith.

"This preacher who claims to know Christ, how can he act like that, how can he threaten our country?" she said Friday. "I wanted to call him and ask: 'Do you really know the Lord? Have you read your own Bible?' "

Unlike many of us, who think about 9/11 only on the anniversaries, Renee and her two children think about it every day. In her home she has a glass case with a flag and other mementos of her husband, killed in the first airplane strike that hit Tower One on Sept. 11, 2001.

Dan had gone to work that morning wearing gray slacks and a gray striped shirt. To say goodbye, he had kissed her upside down as she lay on the couch.

Dan's remains were never found.

On Friday, as Renee felt anger boiling over the Florida preacher's histrionics, she helped her daughter Katie pack up a few mementos to take to her Bible class at Central Christian Church. Katie, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, wanted to talk to her fellow students about the anniversary, so Renee helped her pack up a few things: a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. A picture of Dan, the father of Katie and Katie's brother, 16-year-old J.D. A replica of the World Trade Center.

She showed Katie how to point to the spot toward the top of the north tower, where Dan had worked: the 97th floor. He was a vice president for computer technology at a finance company, Marsh & McLennan.

Nine years ago, when Renee saw the smoke and flames on television of where the first plane had struck, she knew immediately that Dan was probably dead; the plane had struck at the 96th floor and burned upward.

"It's really hard to see all these daily news stories," she said. "It brings it all back."

Driving Katie to private school at Central Christian Church on Wichita's east side reminds her daily in another way, she said. To get there, they ride past the Islamic Society of Wichita's mosque just north of K-96, near Woodlawn.

And every day, because the terrorists claimed to be fighting on behalf of Islam, Renee looks at the mosque with mixed emotions.

"And then I think: Just let it go."

"I wish the Muslims would not build that cultural center in New York," she said. "I wish they would not do it, because of what happened at the World Trade Center. I have a problem with them practicing their faith so close to ground zero."

"But I don't know that much about Muslims," she said. "Are they anti-American? I don't know. If I went to the Middle East, and tried to establish a Christian church, would the Muslims there let me do that? Probably not."

"I do absolutely know about the teachings of Jesus, though," she said.

"I'm rock sure about that. So I know for one thing, Jesus would not be burning Qurans."

Forgiveness

Renee and the kids moved to Kansas, where Renee had grown up, shortly after the terrorist attacks.

She's lived here ever since. She's what she calls a "starving artist." Her second husband, Gary Riley, is the worship and arts pastor at Westlink Christian Church. Christian teachings dominate their lives. Love your enemies. Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

"Sometime after we moved back to Kansas, I spoke at some churches, about Dan's death and how I had to deal with that," Renee said.

"After I spoke at one of these churches, somebody asked me if I had ever forgiven Osama bin Laden for what he did.

"I thought, wow."

She stood there, her mind reeling. Dan had loved her. Dan had taught her how to scuba dive, how to handle finances, how to ski. He had loved her and their children, grinning over them with a gap-toothed grin, a teddy bear at 6 feet 4 inches tall, 245 pounds.

In his office on the 97th floor of Tower One, he could look out, on that bright blue morning, and see the Statue of Liberty out there on its island in the harbor, looking out over the water. That sight had welcomed so many of the world's downtrodden, so many people from so many races and faiths.

"That's a hard question," Renee thought, as she tried to think of what to say. "It really is."

Could she forgive Osama bin Laden for murdering Dan? Should she?

"But then I thought, 'Well, being a true Christian, and believing as I do... I realized that when I pray, when I say the Lord's Prayer, I'm supposed to ask him to forgive me.'

"'And to forgive those who sinned against me.'

"So when I answered that question, I said, 'I have forgiven him, and have given it back to God, knowing that God will prevail. In his own time.' "

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