A Reflection from a chaplain at Ground Zero following 9/11

by Jonathan Smith on September 10, 2021 in Church Health Strategy

I was in New York City in June of 2001 with my wife Heather for my first visit to New York City. We enjoyed a Yankees game, Phantom of the Opera, walks down to Times Square, and other typical NYC adventures. When I returned for a last-minute mission trip in December of 2001 to aid in the relief work following the 9/11 attacks, I found an entirely different city. The people were friendlier, but a dark and sullen cloud hung over the hustle and bustle that is New York.

My job was to lead a team of seven people to work for the United Way, distributing funds given by so many generous Americans and people from around the world. We did in-taking, helping people fill out paperwork to determine if they were eligible for relief funds. Though that mission was very clear and certainly appreciated, I also went to minister. I went to look deep into the eyes of people who had lost almost everything and let them know about the love of Christ.

Many of their faces still appear in my mind:

A young man who lost his only means of income—a hot dog stand.

A young professional woman who worked in Tower One. She fought against me giving her all that she deserved. She wanted to be sure there was plenty of money for others.

A young family who, several months past September, were still trying to live in their apartment in downtown Manhattan, yet too close to the “closed” zone. Their baby had respiratory issues, but they did not have the money to move away from lower Manhattan.

A single dad who was not eligible for funding even though his family was in great need. Revealing he was ineligible was very difficult.

The faces are still fresh on my mind even twenty years later. The tragedy touched every race, every religion, and every socio-economic group. I interviewed migrant workers to millionaires. Priests and pizza makers. Dentists, lawyers, electricians, firemen and window washers. I interviewed seniors in high school and senior adults.

We spent time working nights at Ground Zero, where I served as the overnight chaplain. Hundreds of recovery workers were still on site. One of my jobs was to take hot chocolate and coffee to the warming stations since it was bitter cold in December. I prayed with many people. I stood right in the middle of what used to be the south tower. Pictures and videos on television do not do justice to what I observed. In December, three months after the attacks, the pile of twisted steel and rubble was still over seven stories high.

We were all moved to tears from the literally thousands of notes, cards, poems, and drawings that were sent from all over the world, intended to encourage those who were still working at Ground Zero.

A fireman who was working at the towers that terrible day told me about what everyone thought was a third plane swooping down to crash into downtown. It happened just minutes after the second tower was hit. He said it was a fighter jet, not a commercial airliner. Three months removed, and he still cried every day.

In my proudest moment as a Texas Baptist, I walked into a football field-sized temporary building at Ground Zero to find three Texas Baptist Men cooking units. They were not just cooking “burgers and dogs” either. They had chicken, brisket, steaks, ribs, and everything that goes with a fine, Texas-sized meal. I was proud to know that Texas Baptists were feeding our finest! A warm plate of food, a smile, and many prayers of thanks and safety were heard all through the night.

To this day, I am part of an annual study. The study is for those who worked in lower Manhattan following September 11. I get the forms in the mail every year. I’m asked questions like: are you still injured? Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Are you depressed? Do you have lung problems? Cancer? I fill out my paperwork every year, mostly so I can read the questions and pray for people who have to still answer yes to being injured and no to being able to sleep. Those few days I spent in New York had a deep impact on my soul and my prayer life. I could write for days about just a few hours of my life. It was a mission trip I was honored to be a part of, and one I will never forget.

Today, I will mill about and do my work. I will pause, like many of you, to remember this day and all that it means to our country. I will think about all those faces and wonder how they are doing. I will pray for many to find Christ and the hope of eternal life. I hope you will join me.

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