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Escorting grieving families to ground zero leaves prof changed

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–After serving as chaplain at ground zero in New York City, the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the twin World Trade Center towers, images remain so strong in the mind of seminary professor Endel Lee that he says the way he approaches ministry has been forever changed.

“I’ve been changed,” said the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Leavell College professor of preaching and pastoral work. With his head hung and tears in his eyes, he searched for words to explain, unable to find any adequate. “I don’t know what all that means now,” he offered, “just that things in my life will never be the same.”

Lee, who teaches a class on “Pastoral Care through Life Crises,” ministered for 10 days in New York City with other Navy chaplains with Coast Guard assignments who, in addition to other projects, accompanied family members on the ferries to ground zero to give husbands, wives, parents and older children opportunity to pay their last respects to deceased loved ones.

“We tried to establish relationships with the family members on the ferry ride to lower Manhattan,” said Lee, who has served nearly 20 years in the military reserves, the last eight as a Navy chaplain. The 15-minute trips to the site, though somber, felt like normal ferry rides, he said, because the outer facades of the buildings along the harbor were still intact.

Once docked, he and other chaplains escorted the groups of 50 people past the tall buildings. With each step, tension mounted and the silence grew, Lee recounted. When the family members finally turned the corner to see the panoramic view of the destruction at ground zero, “a tremendous dose of reality met them,” he said.

As they paused before the devastation before them, their faces revealed the shock over the enormity of the destruction, Lee said. Even the repeated scenes on television had not prepared them for their firsthand encounter.

While some people were reduced to tears, there were very few words. The scene “confirmed for them their worst fears that there could be no more survivors” under the shockingly massive pile of melting steel and burning rubble from the two fallen 110-story skyscrapers, Lee said.

Still, in the mass grave before them that was literally “ashes and dust,” he said family members were grateful to connect with the last place their loved ones breathed life. Seeing the site was particularly meaningful for those who were in denial that their loved ones were gone, he said.

After a brief time at the wreckage site, the chaplains led groups to a makeshift memorial, which showcased teddy bears donated by New York City officials, photographs of missing loved ones and letters written about family members. After an “extremely heart-gripping time” there, the groups got back onboard the ferries to return to mid-Manhattan.

When the boat pulled away from the pier, family members often began crying on each others’ shoulders or talking more about what they had seen, Lee said. “We [the chaplains] would try to be present there with them and offer whatever we could.”

Some of the family members, he learned, had worked at the World Trade Center for at least 15 years. One father, meanwhile, had worked there only two months. Another family’s loved one had flown in for a meeting just that day, Lee recounted. Though he spent only about 45 minutes with each group, he said he will never forget the grieving individuals.

While acknowledging that he felt the Lord had prepared him beforehand for the task, Lee said the scene was much different than the times he had ministered to victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. “I kept thinking that violence caused this devastation,” Lee said. “Hate caused this.”

Like the many uniform-clad volunteers eager to assist in an effort to make a heartfelt contribution, Lee struggled with how such cruelty could happen. He reached out to many volunteers who were forced to dejectedly sit and watch others work while waiting for their opportunity to painstakingly peruse the rubble in hopes of finding survivors.

Describing the intense heat from the fire still burning underground which often exceeded 1800 degrees, Lee compared the burning wreckage to a “small encapsulation of what hell might be like.” Shaken with the awesome realization that those without Christ experience much worse eternal fates, Lee said even this small glimpse of what hell could be like was enough to propel his mission to new heights.

Though sharing Christ with people has been of utmost concern to him, he conceded that Christians must “up” their preparation for the spiritual battles yet to come. “We’ve been around crises before but not with this kind of intensity, not in this generation, and not in our own national borders,” he said.

As he watched family members and overwhelmed volunteers react to the loss, he awakened to his “need to reprioritize his life,” and “to not let mediocrity and bureaucracy get in the way of kingdom ministry.”

He constantly thinks of how Sept. 11 was an ordinary day for employees who went to work in the World Trade Center. “And suddenly they died,” he said.

“If that should happen to me, I don’t want my family to regret the life I’ve lived.”

As he watched firefighters, police workers, family members and volunteers sit down and cry, Lee said he tried to gain an understanding of how it must have felt for God to see what his creation was capable of doing. “It’s got to be a disappointment to God,” he lamented, elaborating, “God stood in a similar place — watching his only begotten son die on the cross.”

Despite the incredible loss, there is still a sense that God will make things right again, he continued. Describing the thousands of volunteers who have extended themselves to serve amongst the debris, he noted, “The amount of evil magnified was consumed by gestures of good will in the response to the New York City tragedy. It gave me renewed hope in the goodness that God has placed in people.

“Though they were broken and shattered, they were not conquered,” he said.

“With God, we can share the pain and embrace the abundant comfort that comes to us through Jesus Christ [2 Corinthians 1:3-5].”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GROUND ZERO CHAPLAIN.

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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