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NY City pastor emphasizes fighting for what’s right after 9/11

NEW YORK (BP)–In the two years since the tragedy of 9/11, Taylor Field has developed a habit of looking for ways in each moment to fight for what is right — in order to keep from fighting, later on, against what is wrong.

Field is pastor of East Seventh Baptist Church/Graffiti Community Ministries in New York City and a missionary with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. And after washing the dust of the World Trade Center from his clothes, he set out to minister to a city forever changed by a sudden act of evil.

He has written a book called “Mercy Streets,” released by Broadman & Holman, the publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the book, based on the Ephesians 1:18 concept of “having the eyes of your heart enlightened,” he recounts stories and lessons learned from years of working in the inner cities of Berlin, Hong Kong, San Francisco and, since 1987, New York City.

In the chapter about 9/11, Field recalls what happened to him the day the planes struck the World Trade Center.

“On the morning of September 11, I was in my office when my wife Susan called. ‘Turn on the TV,’ she said. ‘The World Trade Center is burning.’ She was walking to work and could see it happening,” he writes. “At each corner of her walk to the subway, people were crowding around in order to see better. She eventually saw what appeared to be tiny furniture falling from the towers. She looked closer and saw that the falling objects were people.”

After turning on the TV, Field ran outside to look. He could see the smoke billowing from the tower, and as he went back upstairs he heard the boom as the second plane hit.

He began to worry about his older son, Freeman, who went to high school a couple of blocks from the towers. Field recalls that he ran to the family’s apartment a few blocks away in case Freeman called. When he reached the apartment, he learned that the school was only dismissing students if their parents came to get them, so he knew he had to make it to the school. A car was not an option, nor was a taxi, a bus, the subway or even walking. He opted to ride his younger son’s bike into the heart of the disaster.

“The second tower must have collapsed when I was bringing the bike through the hallway. I jumped on the bike and pedaled like a maniac toward the towers. I wondered why I couldn’t see the other tower. Those looming structures were what usually guided me to Freeman’s school,” Field writes. “I soon discovered that the brakes didn’t work on my son’s bike, but that didn’t stop me. As I pedaled down the avenues toward the mountain of smoke, I looked into the faces of thousands of people heading north, walking away from Ground Zero.”

He noticed that the people looked like war refugees, with stunned faces and white dust covering their bodies. The closer he got to Ground Zero, he said, the quieter things became. “Everything was deathly quiet.”

After getting through roadblocks and the massive wall of debris and smoke, Field reached the school. The authorities said the students had been evacuated, and no one knew their location. Field went back to the apartment and waited for his son to call. By the end of the day, his wife and two sons had made it safely home. But a new era of ministry awaited them.

The next day, they put food and a TV outside their mission — which is about 5,000 feet from Ground Zero — as people walked the streets. Inside was a prayer room, and people just wanted to talk, Field said.

One man told him, “I was cleaning up an office. All my friends went down the exit, but I went across the office to call my wife. After I called her, I went down the other exit. I lived, but all my friends are missing. I’ve got to do something.”

Field writes of a woman who came by, covered with tattoos and deep anxiety.

“Even though this woman and I were incredibly unlike each other in occupation, in outlook and in friends, in one way we were just alike,” he writes. “We both, in one way or another, had a tendency to find meaning and purpose in things that are, in the end, superficial.”

The woman prayed to ask Christ into her life.

Field found that one of the most significant ways to minister after 9/11 was to be positive. He was scheduled to perform a wedding in the city just over a week after the attack, and the couple decided not to change their plans.

“The wedding went off without a hitch. The moment that I remember best, however, was when the bride and groom walked down the stairs outside the church,” he writes. “All the cars passing by began to honk. People stuck their heads out windows and shouted as if they had just seen the game-winning touchdown at the Super Bowl.

“Even though the smell of the burning towers still cloaked the area, people hoarsely bellowed, ‘Way to go! Don’t let them stop you! That’s the spirit!’ The traffic stop became a victory parade. I had never seen anything like it in the city. But something made me want to roll up my sleeves and celebrate this occasion of love and hope as if our lives depended on it. And maybe lives did depend on it.”

In thinking about the effect 9/11 would have on the world, Field found help in the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi who lost his family and community in the fires of World War II.

“We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil,” Heschel wrote.

That quote set in motion a prayer Field has since prayed concerning 9/11 and its implications.

“I knew in my heart that if we did not fight for what was right for the children I saw on the streets in New York, we would end up fighting against them as grown-up drug dealers and perpetrators of violent crime,” Field writes.

He concluded that in some small way, each person can be as brave as a firefighter, a policeman or a soldier overseas because each person has the opportunity each day to live sacrificially in developing the habit of fighting for what is right.

In the two years after 9/11, East Seventh Baptist Church/Graffiti Community Missions has followed a commitment to deal with three areas of need in the city: grief and support, direct benevolence and job development.

“What I see now for people in Lower Manhattan and for a number of people is that the long-term effect has been a great deepening of their spiritual walk,” Field told Baptist Press. “It hasn’t been easy. There are people we work with that had to leave New York or had to deal with fear or difficulties, but what I’ve seen after two years is that they say, ‘9/11 changed my life and brought me closer to God rather than drive me away.'”

He has also seen so many people drawn to help and share Christ in Manhattan and has seen people be more receptive there.

Other long-term effects Field has seen stem from lost jobs after 9/11. Now those people are being evicted from their apartments in a ripple effect of the difficulties. That’s why the benevolence and job development ministries are so important.

But some New Yorkers believe the first major test of how they’ve changed since the World Trade Center crumbled was the blackout that struck the city Aug. 14.

Field said he was talking with people about the blackout recently, and they were proud that it wasn’t like the blackout of 1977 when there was so much crime.

“I asked them, ‘What do you think the difference is?’ and one said, ‘I think it’s 9/11. It’s because we realize we need to pull together in this time, and we approach it in a different way.'”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: INNER CITY PASTOR, MERCY STREETS and SHARING HOPE.

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  • Erin Curry