LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–To hear the descriptions of the place called “ground zero” — the rubble, the disarray, the sulfur smell, the tears — you would think it was a war zone, a different world, anything but the former site of two 110-story symbols of American might. There, the still-smoldering ruins of New York’s World Trade Center Towers are now known by natives and relief workers simply as “the pile.”
The grim, ash-scarred faces, the still-unrequited grief, the unnatural somberness shrouding lower Manhattan – these all betray something more than a shattered skyline. They reveal broken spirits, pressing questions, spiritual searches, utter shock.
There to help pick up the emotional pieces of those digging through the debris of fallen buildings and dreams were a dozen members of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary community. In recent days, both students and staff have traveled to Manhattan, individually volunteering to assist with the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s disaster relief teams. While in New York, they offered physical and spiritual care to many rescue workers, residents and shocked onlookers.
“The night we drove into the city, Thursday night [after the tragedy], you could see the flames, smell the smell,” said one-time Long Island resident Alex Bell, a master of divinity student from Greenville, Tenn. “It was like somebody was cutting concrete but about a thousand times worse than that. It was a thick, burning concrete smell. …
“I lived outside of New York for a year. It was hard for me to see the skyline with [the towers] not being there. … It has taken me a while to process it.”
Southern’s chief of security and risk management, Bob Perkins, had a similar reaction.
“What you see on TV doesn’t do justice to the horrific magnitude of the destruction,” he said. “You have different emotions. When I was there, it was just hard to comprehend that there’s 6,000 to 8,000 people still buried dead underneath that rubble. These were just citizens, ordinary people.”
Yet in the midst of the devastation, Perkins, Bell and the other students all took part of an extraordinary effort of just “ordinary” citizens joining together for a sacrificial service.
As of Oct. 4, SBC Disaster Relief teams had helped serve some 268,000 Red Cross meals. The effort will continue, Perkins said, for many weeks.
Brad Hughes, a master of divinity student from Blakely, Ga., is one of those continuing the work. Hughes actually recruited students to help the KBC teams Sept. 20-24. Upon hearing word from Bell that more people were needed in the effort, Hughes contacted the KBC and then talked to his dormmates about the opportunity.
It was an easy recruiting job. Nine students readily volunteered — Ryan Baltrip, Kyle Barrett, Patrick Barrett, Jarrod Helms, John Mark Hutcheson, Jeff Lehman, Chris Mills, Blake Ring and Nathan Wilder.
“They [the relief workers] were very excited about having seminary students there because there is a desperate need for counseling,” Hughes said.
Hughes’ crew worked 12-hour shifts — stirring beans, filling bowls, washing dishes, praying.
While serving food, the Southern volunteers were also able to offer comfort.
“We didn’t do much talking, just a lot of listening,” Bell said. “They just needed somebody to listen and give them a hug. … A lot of people came up to us because we were wearing a yellow [disaster relief] hat and just started telling us stories about people they knew who died in [the tragedy].”
All who went commented on the spiritual hunger among many New Yorkers.
“Everybody up there is looking to God, not necessarily our God, but to God for answers and for emotional help,” Bell explained. “So it is definitely an open door toward spiritual renewal. It opens the door for us to step in with the true God and show them that he really does love us.”
Perkins’ experiences were similar, including “seeing our people stop firefighters and rescue workers and having prayer with them [and also seeing] people walking into our compound knowing we’re a religious organization and saying, ‘Help us make sense of this.'”
Hughes summarized the effort: “I know that tons of seeds were planted.”
All the Southern volunteers also gushed about the reception from the New Yorkers. Everybody who passed by offered appreciative words. Restaurants gave discounts. Tollbooths waved them through.
“The New Yorkers treated us great,” Perkins said. “They thanked us constantly.”
Even the mayor of New York personally offered his thanks to Hughes’ group. In the area for a patriotic musical performance to be aired before a National Football League game, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani came by to see Hughes’ team and other relief workers.
“He introduced himself to every one of us and just told us how very much he appreciated us being there,” Hughes said.
For the students and staff who went, the whole experience and the sober reality will be permanently etched on their minds.
“It will be a pivotal point in my life — when I realized how important evangelism is and realized the brevity of human life,” Hughes said.
Christians have rightly been horrified by this great loss of life and by the fact that many of the victims may not have known Christ, he said, noting that the Great Commission and the fragility of life should always be a humbling reality.
“We make a huge deal over this [tragedy], but life is ending every day for people, every minute since we’ve been talking. … If we don’t tell them, they won’t know. If they don’t know, we know what awaits them.”
Hughes said he will lead more weekend trips in the coming weeks.
“They need our help as well as our prayers,” Perkins said.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MAYORAL APPRECIATION and SEMINARY SERVANTS.