On September 11th, 2001, I was two weeks into the fall semester of my third year at Bible college in a small town in Canada. I skipped breakfast in the cafeteria that morning and attended daily morning chapel. I arrived a few minutes late and sat in one of pews in the back row. The worship songs had already started, so I did not have the chance to talk to any other students. After a few worship songs, there was a time of prayer and the person leading prayers mentioned the situation in the United States. I did not know about what was going on in the United States and, being a student from the United States, I immediately leaned forward and asked another student. This student briefly told me that there had been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
I am a west coast guy, so I knew little about the World Trade Center or the landscape of New York City. I thought maybe there was a bomb explosion in a building and thought little of it at first, but at the end of chapel there was an announcement that there were televisions set up in the cafeteria showing the news coverage. This caused me to think that the situation was more serious than I had originally thought, so I left chapel immediately and rushed to the cafeteria.
Upon arriving at the cafeteria, I saw the news footage of the planes crashing into the twin towers and the news footage of the south tower collapsing. The footage shocked me. I could not believe that this was happening in my home country. Several U.S. students were glued to the televisions. We watched the live footage of the north tower smoldering, wondering if it would soon collapse like the south tower. The Canadian students consoled us as we all tried to make sense of such a large-scale terrorist attack through the use of commercial airplanes. Then we watched live as the north tower collapsed. I dropped to one knee in shock. This was the most devastating and distressing thing I had ever witnessed.
I watched the news coverage in the cafeteria through the lunch hour and when other students, knowing that I was a U.S. student, asked me what I thought about the attack, I had little to say because I was in shock and disbelief. Also, the thought of processing the attacks while being away from the U.S. for the school year was becoming a reality. While my country was panicking and grieving, I was stuck at a Bible college in Canada. After the lunch hour, I had watched enough of the news coverage and met with one of my professors for prayer and to get help with processing my emotions. This was helpful and enabled me to continue through the rest of the day.
Because I was in an academic theological setting, the days that followed 9/11 were filled with thoughts and conversations about God’s relationship and involvement in world events, the philosophical problem of evil, the worldviews and practices of religious extremist groups and the justification of U.S. retaliation and war in Afganistan. I was young in my theological understanding, and so I was catapulted into these topics for the first time. I just started to scratch the surface on these complicated topics. I followed the aftermath news on the internet and read about all the efforts that were going on at Ground Zero. One story that has stuck with me throughout the years is about a New York City priest/chaplain and his ministry at Ground Zero the days following 9/11.
A New York City priest became involved in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero following the attacks on 9/11. Alongside many rescue workers, he spent hours upon hours, day after day at Ground Zero. He spent most of his time ministering to people and praying with them. Everyone from distraught family members of missing people to exhausted rescue workers to traumatized New York citizens. He led daily candlelight prayer vigils and, like many others working at Ground Zero, he went weeks with very little sleep. In an interview, he talked about the overwhelming trauma and the overwhelming need for spiritual care at Ground Zero. He explained that the need became so great that he just had to start briefly laying his hands on people and quickly blessing them with a simple verbal “blessings.” That is all he could do amid the overwhelming pain and suffering, amid overwhelming darkness and amid his overwhelming exhaustion. He had to trust that God would use his simple verbal “blessings” to comfort and minister to people. He had to trust that his simple presence as a follower of Jesus was light in a dark place, life in the midst of death and love in the aftermath of hate.
This story stuck with me because I was training to become a pastor, and I viewed the priest as an inspiration for my life as a minister. His experience is an outstanding example of how even small ministry acts can work in a profound way. In life, we will be confronted with overwhelming situations where the only things we can do is to be present and to say a few words that comfort the souls of others. Throughout the last twenty years, I have remembered and reflected on 9/11 and on the lives that were lost and the lives that were affected, and I have tried to follow the example of the priest in my daily life by saying “blessings” to others in moments when few words can be said.