ST. LOUIS (BP)–It was a routine visit to ground zero for Joe Williams, an FBI chaplain who ministers to those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks on behalf of Southern Baptists. He watched as a small boy — the son of one of the Port Authority police officers who died in the attack — began touching the cell phone of one of the officers.
“Would you call my daddy?” he asked the man.
“You could hear the people clearing their throat kind of quietly, and some of the men began to go outside,” Williams told a gathering of fellow chaplains and other guests June 10. “And the mother of that little boy tried to apologize.”
The short but poignant encounter was just one of many glimpses into the Sept. 11 chaplaincy response shared during the Southern Baptist Chaplains and Counselors in Ministry Convocation. Other speakers were Dan Lovin, a law enforcement chaplain from Illinois who ministered in New York, and Doyle Dunn, a U.S. Navy chaplain serving in the Pentagon on the day of the attack.
The annual meeting, sponsored by the North American Mission Board, was held at Rock Hill Baptist Church in Brentwood, Mo. The convocation also provided a time of fellowship for Southern Baptist chaplains and a time to honor chaplains who have died during the past year.
Williams said he got the call from the FBI to assist in New York on Sept. 12. He currently is a resident chaplain for those affected by the tragedy as part of Enduring Hope, the unified plan for disbursing funds contributed through the North American Mission Board, New York Metropolitan Baptist Association, New York Baptist Convention and several other groups.
A veteran of the chaplaincy response to the Oklahoma City bombing, Williams told of a worker who was near the top of one of the buildings Sept. 11 — but had to go down to the basement just before the first plane hit. When the man heard about the crash, he told a colleague over the phone that he was coming up to help, but he was told instead to get out. His colleague didn’t make it.
“Now, nine months later, he has contracted asthma and other respiratory disorders, but he told his story and wept,” Williams said. “He said, ‘These buildings were not just buildings. They have been part of my life for 28 years.'”
Williams also told of a heavy-equipment operator at the site who wore a cross sent in by a girl in Michigan, one of many items sent to encourage workers. It turned out he was corresponding with 50 children from across the country. “I thought this is a big, rough guy, but he had a heart so tender,” Williams said.
Williams’ ongoing work in New York, which recently was extended at least through the one-year anniversary of the crisis, also includes training for public safety workers in dealing with traumatized people and helping area pastors “develop a debriefing model” for helping individuals who have suffered losses.
Lovin, a police chaplain from southern Illinois, told how he also was one of the early responders to the call for volunteer chaplains in New York, and how God miraculously intervened to facilitate his ministry. At the airport, a stranger gave him $35 for a cab. Upon arriving at New York Metropolitan Baptist Association offices, he found the door unexpectedly locked, but the cab driver came back and took him to a nearby police station at no charge.
At the station, the desk sergeant asked for prayer that he would be able to travel home to Italy. Then, after explaining his predicament, the station put him up in a hotel for the night at their expense. The next day, two officers were back to deliver him wherever he needed to go. He wound up staying at the precinct that day, leading a prayer service and helping officers cope individually.
“I can’t tell you what Psalms I read … but I just asked God to help me,” Lovin said. “Those officers stood there at attention, and I read Scripture to them and offered them words of encouragement. … I never in my life have seen such tired and hopeless looks as those men and women had on their faces.”
Later Lovin learned he would be unable to stay at the association office as had been planned, but it wasn’t long before the police came through with another solution — with the help of a local Catholic priest.
“He gave me his personal room and his office and said ‘As long as I’m in New York that’s your place to stay,'” Lovin said.
In Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, Dunn said the experience “opened the door across America for people to talk about God without being rebuked or thought less of. It was a wonderful experience while it lasted.”
He told of the spontaneous memorials that appeared out in a grassy corner near the crash site and how a spontaneous worship service broke out when one pastor took it upon himself to preach.
“He began to talk about Jesus Christ and the freedom and power and love that comes from that,” Dunn said. “He preached for about five minutes, and everybody stayed and listened quietly.”
When he finished, the group gathered in a circle as the man prayed — not just a generic prayer, but to “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Dunn also told of the sacred moments in the temporary morgue when all present would pause as he read Scripture and prayed over each body or portion of human remains that was found and processed for identification.
“Every time they took out a bag and took out the remains a hush fell over the room,” Dunn said. “As I watched it I began to see that it was a recognition of God, that the person who is no longer breathing is made in the image of God.”
Don Yeagar, chairman of NAMB’s Chaplains Commission, noted at the close of the session that the stories of the 9/11 chaplains are in many ways similar to those experienced by chaplains across the country each day.
“While the focus has been on those who ministered right there on the scene, we know there were a lot of you ministering in other places, trying to calm the hearts and fears of the people,” he said.
John Yarbrough, vice president of evangelization for the North American Mission Board, made the same point during comments earlier in the meeting.
“When you part the curtains on crisis in North America, behind the curtain you’ll find a chaplain sitting somewhere,” he said.