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New York, 5 years after 9/11: Baptist ministry continues

NEW YORK (BP)–It has been five years since two jets slammed into the World Trade Center, leaving thousands dead and hundreds injured in the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.

But five years haven’t been enough time for the effects of the attack to wear off for New Yorkers. Just ask Gary Frost, who became executive director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association in 2004. As he walks through New York train stations, Frost eyes backpacks and luggage with a constant awareness that one bag filled with explosives could throw the city into crisis once again.

“As I’ve traveled through, I’ve seen people with large backpacks and all sorts of luggage that’s not being inspected,” Frost said. “I realize that God has just been gracious to us. We’ve not been protected by Homeland Security. We’ve been protected by a heaven-land security system. God’s angels are on patrol in New York City because there’s no other way we can account for not having some kind of major terrorist strike over the past five years.”

Just as the effects of 9/11 haven’t worn off, five years also haven’t been enough time for Southern Baptists’ compassion for New Yorkers to wear off.

God’s protection of New York has underscored for Frost the need to bring the message of Christ to New Yorkers while there is still time. Since 2001, the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and its churches have conducted a three-pronged ministry of grief support, financial assistance for 9/11 victims and job development for those who lost steady employment due to the attack.

These ministries have touched thousands and made Southern Baptists one of the few groups still conducting organized recovery ministry five years later.

“When there is a traumatic experience such as 9/11, not only are the first responders and caregivers and the family of the deceased impacted, but there’s a ripple effect that sometimes doesn’t manifest itself until maybe a year or two later,” Frost said. “I think pastors are [now] more appreciative of the need to minister beyond initial crisis intervention.”

Taylor Field is one New York City pastor attuned to the need for long-term recovery ministry. As pastor and director of East Seventh Baptist Church-Graffiti, the church nearest Ground Zero at the time of the attack, Field launched an aggressive five-year plan to minister to the “affected but neglected” victims of 9/11.

Field, a missionary appointed by Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, hired a fulltime 9/11 recovery director, Kareem Goubran, who leads support groups, financial assistance efforts and job skill development classes. From those ministries have come dozens of stories about changed lives.

One man, who lost his job as a hotel worker after 9/11, sent his children to an after-school program at Graffiti. He discovered that Graffiti was hiring 9/11 victims to help build a new facility, applied for a job and eventually came to faith in Christ during construction through Field’s witness.

A woman, whose cousin was one of the firemen who died on 9/11, came to Graffiti to help with the recovery effort. When it became evident that her life was filled with hurts and pains, Graffiti began to minister to her. Today she works as the church’s 9/11 recovery assistant.

Goubran can recount other stories reflecting how Graffiti shows people a “complete kind of love” akin to God’s love.

“We know that when people are in crisis, you’ve got to be there for them long-term,” Goubran said. “You don’t just put a Band Aid on it and say, ‘Look at all we did.’ You’ve got to really do everything you can to meet their needs completely because that’s how God’s love is — a complete kind of love.”

Field sees 9/11 as a turning point for ministry in New York; it made New Yorkers more open to cooperation and conversation, which translates into increased openness to the Gospel.

An illustration of the change in New York came during the massive power outages of 2003, Field said. During similar power outages in the 1970s, New Yorkers looted stores, vandalized property and destroyed sections of the city, but during the 2003 outages city residents cooperated and helped one another.

“I remember being in a group Bible study with people that were in difficult circumstances,” Field said. “… I said, ‘Why do you think it was different this time?’ And they, to a person, said, ‘Because of 9/11. We’ve learned that in tough times we can stick together rather than fighting each other.'”

“Native New Yorkers tell me that New York is a friendlier place now,” said Frost, the North American Mission Board’s former vice president for strategic partnerships. “People are more willing to engage in spiritual conversation. And the real distinction I’ve found is that they don’t want to talk about church and churchy things. They want to have more relational contact. People are open to talk about God and Jesus.”

To move forward in ministering to 9/11 victims, Frost said, Southern Baptists must fight the temptation to become complacent in evangelism.

So far, said Brad Veitch, church planting director for the Baptist Convention of New York, Southern Baptists have capitalized on New York’s openness to the Gospel by planting churches and sharing the Gospel.

“We have seen a continued increase in the number of baptisms from our church plants in New York City since that time,” Veitch said. “We did not have much going on before then, but the churches that we are planting are continuing to increase in the number of baptisms each year. I believe there is a growing responsiveness to the Gospel in the city.”

Veitch pointed out that New York Baptists’ response to the terrorist attack has been possible largely because of the thousands of Southern Baptist volunteers who have poured in from across the country.

“There is no way our state convention would have been able to mount a response to 9/11 were it not for the Southern Baptist family and thousands of volunteers who have come and invested their time and their prayers and their financial resources in New York City,” Veitch said.

Trusting God, Field said, is among Baptists’ greatest challenges in the days to come.

“I think there is a challenge that’s with each person,” he said, “to walk by faith and believe that God will bring good out of even the most difficult situations.”