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Beyond 9/11, Southern Baptists find goodwill and opportunities to minister to a still hurting city

NEW YORK (BP)–The rubble has long been cleared from the scar on Lower Manhattan that will forever be known as Ground Zero, but the process of healing continues throughout the city and around the world.

For Southern Baptists, the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, resulted in an unprecedented Disaster Relief response and related ministry efforts. But it also provided a bittersweet blessing — a strengthened ongoing presence that could impact the city for years.

“I believe Southern Baptists and all evangelical Christians are more sensitive to people’s needs and understand something of the urgency in regard to spiritual things in this city,” said J.B. Graham, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New York. “We are approaching more people through ministry evangelism than ever before.”

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers were on the scene soon after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. — ramping up mobile kitchens by the next day to feed the relief workers as part of a longstanding partnership with the American Red Cross.

But the effort quickly became more than that. Sixteen Southern Baptist chaplains with experience in grief counseling were immediately flown in to mingle with the crowds and offer counseling, an effort that later grew into opportunities to be a part of ministry at Ground Zero as the remains of 9/11’s victims were recovered.

Within two months, Southern Baptists’ experience in cleaning out homes damaged by flood had translated into a ministry of cleaning apartments in buildings surrounding Ground Zero. The thick gray dust covered personal belongings and only served to magnify the stress of individuals whose lives were turned inside out. The friendliness and compassion of the Southern Baptist workers was noted repeatedly as part of the healing process.

By the time the response ended more than 300 days later, 643 apartments had been cleaned, 1.29 million meals prepared and 842 children cared for at childcare centers — in addition to other associated ministries.

It was the longest sustained response in the history of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and one that reshaped the network of volunteers in ways that continue to be felt today — including more emphasis on chaplaincy and new partnerships with other relief agencies.

Various funds were established early on to allow Southern Baptists to contribute financially to the needs, and by early 2002, a plan named “Enduring Hope” was in place for using more than $3.5 million donated to a number of Southern Baptist entities.

Direct benevolence for families of more than 1,500 workers who had lost their jobs because of the tragedy was one of the key uses of the fund, said Larry Brown, who administrated the benevolence fund and now serves as interim office administrator for the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association.

“I continue to get calls nearly every week, primarily people we’ve helped previously,” he said. “We’ve continued to hear from them, although we’ve not had funds to assist since early this year.”

Churches have been impacted as well, including one Haitian congregation that added many members because of the benevolence effort and received a grant to help expand its facilities.

The fund also provided chaplaincy services, ongoing relief projects, a building in Brooklyn now under renovation to house volunteers in the city on a permanent basis and support for a new church in lower Manhattan — Mosaic Manhattan — that is providing a continuing spiritual presence in the affected area.

At Graffiti Baptist Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, North American missionary Karem Goubran has worked fulltime for more than a year responding to ongoing individual problems directly resulting from Sept. 11 — either from lost jobs or personal grief.

“What we’re seeing now is a ripple effect from people who lost jobs or lost income because of the tragedy,” said Taylor Field, director of the Graffiti center. “Two years later he’s helping people that are getting evicted and things like that.”

Overall, the center has seen a sharp increase in assistance of all kinds — including more than 15,000 “defusings,” 20-minute to two-hour sessions with individuals in crisis.

“We are able to do that because we have a number of people working with us,” Field said. “They say people turn to what’s familiar, and we were here…. We were here before the tragedy, and we’ll be here for the long term afterward.”

Field noted an upcoming book he has written about Sept. 11 — titled “Mercy Streets” — which details many of the experiences he has encountered both personally and through the ministry.

“God has taken this terrible thing and brought some really good things out of it,” he said.

One of those things is a hint of somewhat softer soil for planting seeds of the Gospel. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, much attention was given to a return by many to the church and the importance of God. Several leaders say that while church attendance did fall off to normal levels within a few weeks, there remains a difference in spiritual climate.

“I believe the general public, even strangers, are more open,” said Graham, of the New York state convention. “They’re more helpful. They’re willing to consider spiritual issues. They won’t turn you off when you talk about life issues. More people are searching for meaning in life than there were.”

He noted seeing Christian messages on the walls near Ground Zero, such as “The only way to perfect peace is through Jesus Christ” or “Regardless of what happens here, God knows — and he cares.” In restaurants, he finds waitresses more interested in sharing personal needs when he asks if he can pray for them.

“It used to be that you didn’t get that much response,” he said. “People would turn away, and they’d say everything’s OK. Or they didn’t want to talk about it…. I think there’s more of a receptivity now.”

Part of that receptivity also is coming to Southern Baptists based on their involvement in relief efforts. While the average New Yorker is not much more likely to recognize the efforts of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, leaders say, those who worked around the relief and recovery operation remember well the volunteers in yellow shirts.

“We have enjoyed a kind of favor among officials, among the leaders in various communities that we have never enjoyed before,” Graham noted. “And they remember that it was Southern Baptists who did all of that for the people, so that gives us an entree into many, many things that we didn’t have before.”

Brown noted that two new churches — including Mosaic Manhattan — are the first Southern Baptist churches ever to meet in public schools in New York City.

“Those two sort of present breakthroughs for us and new opportunities to have reasonable cost facilities for some of our churches to develop in,” Graham said. “Now there is a court case that helped that, but I think that these churches may have been impacted because of what Southern Baptists did in Lower Manhattan.”

One of the most significant factors surrounding the heightened Southern Baptist presence has been New Hope New York, a part of the North American Mission Board’s Strategic Focus Cities initiative that will channel hundreds of volunteers and other resources to the city. The effort begins a two-year implementation period in January in which new churches will be planted, existing churches will be strengthened and other efforts made to touch the city with the Gospel.

Nelson Searcy, city coordinator for the effort, said the goodwill generated by Southern Baptist outreach efforts might contribute to the receptiveness of individuals to outreach efforts by churches. But perhaps more significantly, he said, Sept. 11 has prompted a new heart for New York among Southern Baptists as a whole — and a willingness to become involved in ministry to its people.

Noting the outpouring of prayer for the city over the past two years, he said, “If we can have that kind of intensity on a regular basis I firmly believe that major barriers will come down.”
To learn more about ongoing ministry opportunities in New York, visit www.newhopnewyork.com or www.PrayNewYork.com.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MOSAIC, PARK SLOPE, FOOD FOR RECOVERY WORKERS, HEAVY-DUTY DUSTING, and GROUND ZERO.

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  • James Dotson