Like all of you, this week I have been watching the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City being replayed over and over again. The stench of death is still vividly trapped in my mind to this very day. I can hardly move past the smell of the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center as I do my best to endure the television images of such a horrendous event; an event that has unfortunately altered the state of our great country. The Lady of Liberty wept along with our entire nation on Sept. 11, 2001, as the smoke billowed skyward in the wake of this senseless tragedy.
Please allow me to let you see through the eyes of a law enforcement chaplain how I have found that the sweet aroma of God's love far surpasses that of the ugly stench of death. My memories are filled with people of 9/11. As much the "hell of it all" tries to creep into of my mind, I opt to go to the memories of the people. From the weary eyes of then-Mayor Giuliani to the distant stare of transit authority, EMT, FDNY and NYPD personnel, to the people I had the honor of meeting, counseling and praying with who miraculously made it out of buildings, the first two weeks of exhaustion were obviously seen on all the responders. There are two words in my memory banks that stand out concerning the first responders and the victims of 9/11. I honestly believe every American needs to hear these words and to know the life-giving expression of them. The words are dignity and respect.
If you were standing with forensics CIS teams outside the medical examiners building, you could hear the muted sounds of sirens off in the distance, the body language of those around would begin to change with the perimeter security, people would begin finishing conversations and in a few minutes the motorcycle escort would pull off to the side as the ambulance would pull into the facility set up by the medical examiners. As the back door was opened and the body bag on the gurney was brought out, everyone stood at attention with hand over heart or in military salute. Every person, with or without tears, reverently showed respect to the fallen and with dignity the individual remains were given over to the fatality team. This to me is the true heart of Americans! We, as a nation, may be drifting off course, going away from our mooring and in great need of a strong moral compass, but the people of America showed themselves to be people of dignity and respect during the very important rescue and recovery portions that make up two major parts of this historical event. Most people do not know, especially the enemies of the USA, that it was not just a city that responded to this critical incident -- the entire nation responded. Fire Departments in small towns in the Mid-West to larger departments on the West Coast immediately began driving their equipment hundreds, if not thousands of miles to downtown Manhattan. Police departments, sheriffs, Marshals and agents from all 50 states arrived in the Big Apple to lift up the weary arms of their counterparts and comrades in arms from New York City pastors, priests and clergy from all corners of our great land. Each came humbly, willingly and at their own expense to help comfort the broken hearts of those affected by their fallen countrymen, and to strengthen the overwhelmed clergy, who were on the scene almost immediately, as the news and media agencies unleashed every tidbit of news that could be reported in those early hours.
On Sunday evening, when I arrived at ground zero after a long day helping in other areas in the city, the sunset was memorable and there was a distinct stillness in the air. The background music for this poetic sight was that of tractors and trucks and men and women doing their best to recover or rescue survivors. I introduced myself to the FDNY Fire Chief, a man that had immediately earned my respect. Just standing in his presence and seeing the pain on his face, I knew that he had been deeply impacted by the disaster. I explained who I was, the team I belonged to and offered him our help. He paused and looked over at a white tent with all four sides open much like a tent you would see in someone's back yard during a wedding reception or an important party. His first words were, "Mike, would you place a chaplain over there at that tent 24 hours a day to tend to the waning men and women? That's all I have left of my management team." Absorbing his words was like being hit in the chest. "Yes sir," I responded. He pointed out two areas of rubble at ground zero and the remains of two firefighters that had been found and were being prepared to be recovered and transported to the morgue. He asked if I would please help wherever needed. Then, as I began to walk toward the recovery sites, I heard from behind me, "Mike!" I turned around and looked at this weary warrior who muttered, "You know, not everyone here believes in God." "Yes sir," I replied. We will be very sensitive." His parting remark to me is as fresh and impactful today as it was 10 years ago, "It's probably a good time to start?" "Yes sir," I responded. Then there was a pause. Two or three firefighters or police officers would escort any remains from the pile. They would be lifted out by a huge mechanical arm with a basket on it, then gently lowered to ground level, moving ever so slowly and respectfully.
Waiting in unruffled silence to receive these remains were "pall bearers," made up of approximately 20 responders who took time to pull away from their work on the pile. Fire, EMT and police all gathered requesting that we pray. EMTs placed the remains on their gurney in the center of this circle. No one was offended by prayer; all were open and willing to give dignity and respect to a fallen comrade.
I prayed for the families, friends and co-laborers who at this time are known simply as John or Jane Doe to all of us. There was no political correctness. We just knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, I found 100 percent of the people that I helped -- large groups, small groups, individuals, believers or non-believers -- respected the right for spiritual care for every victim and that of the victims loved ones. Helmets were off, heads were bowed and the sweet aroma of God's love showed itself once again on 9/11.
Then there was the dignity, demonstrated as the gurney was placed into the ambulance, motorcycles started up, flashing light bars and loud sirens roared as they pulled away from ground zero. On the other side of town, at that exact same moment, streams of sirens began their journey to the New York Medical Examiners Facility. The remains being transported with such respect and dignity would be received by over-worked, under-paid public servants who were probably saying silent prayers for their own families as they received a fellow citizen's remains, on their end with the same measure of attitude of dignity and respect.
Often in times of national disasters, crime scenes and human tragedies, chaplains respond at all hours, night and day. Their job is not to preach, convert or proselytize, but rather simply be a presence representing the heavenly kingdom. Many of us have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of specialized training and education in critical incidence. There is no training like hands-on training though, like riding along on a 10-hour shift with a police officer, volunteering as a community fireman. For the inhabitants of New York City, God's love did not send the suicide hatred into the World Trade Center. Instead, God's love sent tender-hearted volunteers to minister to those in need. Often, one "goof ball" or bigoted or angry minister, who claims to be a Christian, can ruin it for thousands of the men and women called to serve, and by doing so, people never hear the message. The message I am referring to is the one that brings the true aroma of God's love to those in need. After all, the Bible states "Gods is Love," of which I am a living witness.
Like when Al Baraka, who was standing in a circle with his people in the middle of their brokerage firm on a high up office in WTC, prayed before the tower went down. I met with a blind man and his guide dog. Both had made it out of the building before it collapsed. Yes, the aroma of God's love was in every stairwell, office suite and any imaginable place at the WTC. His love was reaching out to very frightened people and loving them into heaven.
I have counseled with enough first responders to know that multitudes of them were praying as they rushed to the scene, as they were evacuating survivors, helping the injured and comforting the emotionally scarred people.
The heroic stories of firefighters in the stairwells, laden with pounds of gear, gracious, kind and focused on their mission. If all the stories could be told and written down, I suppose the whole world wouldn't be large enough to contain them.
Saint Paul wrote, "The love of God constrains me." He also taught, "The goodness of God leads a man to repentance."
In closing, may I share with you the insights of Jesus from the first century? There was a big problem, and people were concerned. Pontius Pilate had killed some people and mingled their blood in ungodly ceremonies. The mindset of the day was that these people must have been really bad people to die in such a manner.
Jesus made it very clear in Luke 13 that their thinking was wrong, answering them, "Do you think that when the tower fell in Siloam and killed 18 people, that it was because they were such sinners? That's not true, and unless you repent, you shall likewise die."
This is a great lesson learned for me and my faith. The WTC fell to the ground because bad people with no value for human life flew aircraft into it. Jesus is not saying that horrible things happen to horrible people. He is saying that unless every man repents, he is going to die an eternal death.
What is the hope for the future? I believe it is the cross. Arguments and law suits about the cross that supernaturally fell to earth made of beams from a demolished building was and is a sign to all of us. It is to remind us all that the stench of death is quenched through the aroma of God's love by allowing His only begotten son to die for our sins and that He rose from the grave. That's the hope for all, that we can be forgiven and cleared because on the cross outside of Jerusalem the only begotten son of God was crucified for us.
There is a verse in the Old Testament that says, "Remove not the ancient landmarks." For America to recover money is not what we need. We need to return to the great God of Love and allow Him to lead us to safety.
This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.