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Southern Baptist chaplains minister at Ground Zero

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–A team of Southern Baptist chaplains from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma are ministering to firefighters, police and rescue crews searching for survivors at Ground Zero, the site where two passenger jets slammed into the World Trade Center towers Sept. 11.

The chaplains, many of whom ministered at the site of the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, arrived three days after the twin towers collapsed, leaving more than 5,000 people missing.

“Only God could have pulled off getting us here to New York City,” said Sam Porter, men’s ministry and missions specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. “We consider it an honor to be asked to serve and minister to the men and women who are working so hard to dig through this rubble.”

The Oklahoma chaplains were asked by New York officials to take charge of ministry at the site’s temporary morgue, set up in the plaza of the World Financial Center, about 200 yards from the front of what was once the World Trade Center.

“They said they needed someone to handle the morgue and I told them that we are here and we are ready to work,” Porter said. “We put together a multi-denominational team of ministers to work together to assist with the spiritual side of this incident.”

Their primary responsibility is to coordinate eight-hour work shifts for morgue chaplains.

“This is a very professional operation,” Porter said. “These guys are focused on doing the job at hand.”

Within hours of arriving, the chaplains observed a tender, heart-wrenching scene.

“The guys found one of their fire captains in the rubble,” Porter told Baptist Press. “There were 40 firefighters there and they all gathered around the captain’s body and brought him out — together. Then they just stood there. The New York Police Department brought in a few police units and escorted the captain’s body out of the blast zone.

“Most of the time,” Porter said grimly, “they just bring out body parts.”

Waving off the stench of rotting garbage and smoldering debris, the chaplains walk the lines offering encouragement to firefighters and praying with the men and women digging through the ruins.

The Oklahoma delegation included Porter; Leslie Sias, chaplaincy specialist for the BGCO; Paul Bettis, BGCO prison chaplain consultant; Jack Poe, head chaplain of the Oklahoma City Police Department.; and Joe Williams, a retired BGCO chaplain specialist who now works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Poe, who witnessed the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing, said it’s hard to keep one’s emotions checked when looking at the broken remains of the towers.

“It’s really about managing your emotions,” Poe told Baptist Press. “You have to stay focused and on mission. Our mission is to provide comfort and spiritual guidance to these people. We’ll process all of this for the rest of our lives.

“You have to stay objective,” Poe noted. “That’s our job. I can tell you that the hearts of these firefighters and police officers are breaking. Their guts are in knots.”

The scene at Ground Zero, shielded from television cameras by armed National Guard units, is a war zone. Grey dust covers everything, from workers to buildings. Shoes, office papers and other refuse litter the streets and sidewalks. Inside the morgue, coroners examine fragments of bodies and body parts while priests and ministers pray over the remains.

Poe said the rescue teams are facing months of recovery efforts. In Oklahoma City, it took six weeks before the last bodies were retrieved from the federal building.

“With this much carnage, it’s hard to see the similarities with Oklahoma City,” Poe said. “We’ve got people in there who served in Vietnam and they’re coming out of the debris in shock. This is 100 times worse than Oklahoma City.”

Sias, who spent the last nine years on active duty as a military chaplain, said he anticipates being called back in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

“I’ve been talking to the military guys and, really, it’s what I’ve got to do,” he said. “I’ve got to go and I will.”

Sias said telephone calls back home have helped him deal with the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the WTC.

“I talked to my wife a couple of times about what is going on,” Sias said. “She has that sound in her voice, that ‘are you okay?’ voice. She knows we are providing a necessary ministry.”

Sias, the father of two boys, ages 9 and 6, said he and his wife are parents who make sure their children understand what is happening in the world.

“When they got out of school, my wife put them in front of the television,” he said.

It was hard for them to understand when their father told them that he had to go to New York.

“The boys were saying, ‘Daddy, don’t go,'” Sias recounted. “But I think they understand now. Yesterday, my 6-year-old got on the phone and he said, ‘Daddy? Are you helping people in New York?’ I said I was and he said, ‘Good,’ and hung up the phone.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MINISTERING TO RESCUE WORKERS, SHARING, PREPARING TO GO.

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  • Todd Starnes