NEW ORLEANS (BP)–For this chaplain, the day began on Sunday, Sept 30, 2001, at approximately 0630am as I entered the operations center, second deck, U.S. Coast Guard Activities New York in order to locate the daily position of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters keeping watch over New York City. I plotted them on my map, located ships’ phone numbers and decided on a strategy for my divine deployment. First stop was to be Military Ocean Terminal and Station Bayonne; six “black hull cutters” were using this as a port site, the Port Security Unit (PSU) was staging their boats in this area, and there was a small boat station there.
When I arrived on station and passed through the PSU security, things appeared quiet, and I learned that the two boats parked next to the pier had been rotated off river watch for a day so the crew could rest and prepare to assume a new watch position on Monday. I decided first to visit the U.S. Coast Guard Katherine Walker. As I approached the ship, I realized that only a skeleton crew would be aboard. I crossed the gangplank and, as is our custom, I turned toward the stern of the ship to render a salute. While turning, my eyes caught on the horizon the New York City skyline — still smoking, the twin towers obviously missing. I saluted the national ensign with a sense of pain and accepted privilege.
Next, I made my way toward the bridge of the ship where I located one of the crewmembers on watch, a petty officer. As we got better acquainted, I learned that he was on the deck of this ship, which had been parked in about the same place on Sept. 11. He told about how he heard the sound of the first plane crashing into the towers and actually saw the second plane strike. He began to tell of the initial confusion and how his ship got underway immediately to respond and became one of the first assets on the scene.
Within just a few minutes of conversation, I realized that my slow, casual Sunday morning was suddenly transformed into a significant pastoral defusing between this young man and myself. I encouraged him to go on and prompted him with questions that would help him tell his story and release some of his emotions. We talked about his involvement as he ran from Battery Park up to the location now called “ground zero.” He tried to describe what he saw and what he did to help. We talked about how he was processing his exposure to the devastation. The conversation concluded as I suggested that he continue to reach out for support in dealing with the effects of this event on his personal life and his daily duties.
The intensity of the conversation caused time to pass quickly while it also seemed to stand still. During our 15-minute conversation, a young seaman had joined us on the bridge. He listened as the petty officer talked and then the seaman began to relate how he, too, had been affected by the events of Sept. 11.
Thinking that this was going to be “round two” of the same scenario, I turned and began listening to him attentively while thinking that the information would be similar the second time and my response might be in like fashion.
Amazingly, the conversation took a quick turn when I asked the young man how he had been affected most by the incident. He became quite vulnerable and talked openly about how his best friend had been killed responding to the disaster as a New York City firefighter. As a native New Yorker, the seaman had been to his friend’s memorial service the day before. This was his first day back at work after sharing an important time of grief with his friend’s family.
The seaman went on to tell that he had also lost a personal dream with his friend’s death because his friend had been trying to get the seaman into the New York City Fire Department. The young man just didn’t see that dream materializing in light of the recent events.
The expression of pain by these two men seemed to multiply in front of me. My words seemed very hollow as I responded, but I quickly observed that my interest in their personal experiences was invaluable, my listening spoke volumes, and the promise of prayer with them and for them in days to come was a healing ointment.
As the conversation came to a finish and I made my way back toward the gangplank, I paused and saluted the national ensign with great vigor and a soul satisfaction that this was a place where God wanted a chaplain to do his duty. As I crossed that gang plank, I became increasing aware that those men may not have felt the freedom to bare their souls so freely had circumstances been different and if I had not arrived on board when I did — in a gap of their rigorous routine. Suddenly, I knew I had just shared as a participant in a divine appointment. I stepped a bit quicker toward the next cutter on my list, hoping that God would empower me to arrive there in time to care for those in need at that location.
In the course of the day, I was able to visit four other cutters assigned to provide security on the Hudson River, three small boat (41-foot) crews, two Marine Safety boarding teams, two PSU patrol boat teams, and was present at the U.S. Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Team shift change at Station New York to show my interest and willingness to listen and to encourage other Coast Guard members with the promise of prayer. At each new location I found myself searching the eyes of those present to see if I could discern who was hurting and in need of the comfort afforded by a divine appointment. Throughout that day and the nine days to follow, I found many.
Lee, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell College professor of preaching and pastoral work, has served nearly 20 years in the military reserves, the last eight as a Navy chaplain, currently assigned to the Coast Guard.