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While the world wept, Southern Baptists responded

NEW YORK (BP)–The helicopters were a constant presence. Their rhythmic whok-ka-ka-ka-whok-ka-ka-ka provided the soundtrack to another night of confusion and crisis as soldiers lined the streets and mobile mounted machine guns defended consecutive corners.

Every few minutes, the whoosh of jet fighters would drown out the helicopters’ refrain. The fighters were there to make sure the unthinkable didn’t happen a second time. They flew quickly through the smoke-filled sky with a bird’s-eye view of the fires still smoldering below.

The smells were smoke and ash, molten steel and human sweat. This was clearly a war zone, yet it wasn’t Bosnia, Baghdad or Afghanistan. It was New York City a few precious days after Sept. 11.

Driving into this scene, in a borrowed 15-seat van were eight young men on a very focused mission. They knew New Yorkers needed medical attention, food, shelter, crisis counseling, search and recovery services, but they also knew those needs were being handled by others. Moreover, they knew the most important need was spiritual, and these men had come for the single purpose of sharing their faith.

It was close to 2 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15, when their white van pulled up to a parking lot near Ground Zero. There was a chain across the entrance, but they noticed a man sleeping in one of the cars. He was the lot’s security attendant.

After parking, Jose Rondon, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained the gospel to the attendant. He accepted Christ before the newly parked van’s engine had even begun to cool.

“We could tell God had prepared our way because the first person to receive Christ was the [New York City] parking attendant,” said Thomas White, another member of the Southeastern team.

Moving as close as they could to Ground Zero, the group taped a sign to a pole: “We are here to pray for you.”

James Hilton remembers a young African American woman approaching him to ask, “Why would something like this happen?”

“I don’t know why,” Hilton said. “But God understands how you’re feeling, because God lost a Son … . If you’d died in this tragedy, where would you have spent eternity?”

Tears formed in her eyes as she admitted she had no idea. Hilton explained the gospel, and amidst the chaos of Ground Zero — as the helicopters continued their rhythmic whok-ka-ka-ka-whok-ka-ka-ka — the two dropped to their knees, and the woman prayed to receive Christ as her Savior.

Over the next few hours, these Southeastern seminary students distributed more than 2,000 gospel tracts, a number of Bibles, ultimately seeing eight people come to Christ.

Among other scenes that played out again and again as Southern Baptists were on mission with God in the days following Sept. 11:

— On the morning of Sept. 11, Ken Welborn, North American Mission Board missionary to the United Nations, was just getting out of an international prayer breakfast when the terrorists’ chaos erupted. Workers within his office immediately donned badges that read, “May we pray for you?” As the workers waded into the refugees from the World Trade Center, hundreds of people asked for prayer. More than 1,000 gospel tracts were handed out, along with water.

“You could tell they had been hit hard,” Welborn said. “They looked like they were in shock. Their security had been shaken. They looked like refugees. They needed an answer.” Welborn was able to talk about his own relationship with God and the hope that gave him. Since then, Welborn has used the events of 9/11 as a springboard to share Christ with influential people he meets in his work with the U.N.

— In New York on business, Southern Baptist Tom Fortner was munching down a fast-food breakfast when someone shouted, “The World Trade Center is on fire! The World Trade Center is on fire!” Unable to leave, Fortner, like most Americans that day, became glued to the television as events unfolded.

When the second tower fell, Fortner found one of his co-workers intensely struggling with the loss. “He said he watched the plane disappear into the side of the tower, with orange flames and black smoke blowing out of the missing glass panes. I later tried to speak to him about the Lord, but he was still in shock and unable to carry on a conversation.”

Stepping out into the street, Fortner was able to talk with eyewitnesses and rescue workers. “Most of them needed someone to talk to about what they had seen, and to cry with them about the carnage,” Fortner said. “I also told people about the grace of the Lord and their need of the Savior.” Fortner said the idea that God was involved in every detail of their lives seemed like a strange new concept to the New Yorkers he spoke with. “I pray,” he said, “that God sends someone else to continue where I left off.”

— On the morning of Sept. 11, Jim Stewart, a commander in the Navy, called home twice. The first time was to tell his wife, Carol, that two hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center. The second call was much shorter: “Carol,” he said from his office in the Pentagon, “we’ve been hit. They’re evacuating the building.”

Bolting to the television set, Carol, a mother of four, saw on the screen flames arching upward from the Pentagon. “I kept wondering where Jim was,” Carol told the Florida Baptist Witness. “Had he gotten out? Was he ever coming home again? I was shocked and amazed. I just kept praying.”

Thankfully, a few hours later, Jim walked through the front door. “When he got home,” Carol said, “we went to pray with some of the families who still had loved ones not accounted for.” A great need for prayer remains even months after Sept. 11, the Stewarts said. “Pray for the many directly touched by this,” Jim said. “The loss is unfathomable. We must also pray for those behind this evil … We must pray for our enemies, because Jesus commanded it.”

— Skip Greene, a building contractor from Boone, N.C., started for the Pentagon the minute he and his disaster relief crew from the North Carolina Baptist Convention could get supplies together.

He was one of many disaster relief volunteers who arrived at daylight on Sept. 12 and went right to work preparing hot meals and taking water and Gatorade to recovery workers. They also brought along counselors to assist the chaplains inside the Pentagon.

One young soldier from North Carolina came looking for them, seeking camaraderie. As he stood talking to fellow North Carolinians, they told the soldier about the good news of Jesus Christ. Inside the Pentagon, one of the counselors from North Carolina shared the gospel while talking to a Pentagon employee struggling with grief. He had been meeting with two people in his office when he had to excuse himself to go to the restroom. He survived, but those left in his office died.

— While ministering in Manhattan during the days following Sept. 11, Gregg Farrah fell in love with the people who lived in Battery Park City near the World Trade Center. He was so moved by the tremendous needs there that he has returned as a North American Mission Board church planter. Farrah’s plan is to plant a viable church in New York City, but his larger hope is that this body of believers will become a seed for other church plants, starting hundreds of similar communities throughout the Big Apple.

— As he removed debris from the World Trade Center, Frank Silecchia found two steel beams in the perfect shape of a cross — an image that was eventually broadcast worldwide. Silecchia, a fellow believer who had asked Southern Baptists for assistance, used the cross as an opportunity for ministry, leading other rescue workers there for prayer — “people who need encouragement when they are depressed or sad.”

“It helps restore their faith in God because the cross couldn’t be just a coincidence,” Silecchia said in the days immediately following Sept. 11. “It doesn’t happen like that. It was there for a reason. He never leaves us. He is here right in the midst of us.”

— Several miles from Ground Zero is East Seventh Baptist Church, where NAMB missionary Taylor Field is pastor. The Sunday following Sept. 11, a woman covered with tattoos visited the church. She told Field, “I run a tattoo shop, but all of that seems so superficial to me now.” Field explained the good news to her, and she prayed to receive Christ.

— Another woman came to East Seventh Baptist Church and told Field all about her fear and stress since Sept. 11. Sitting in an oversized furnace room on a folding chair — amid the noise of children and Sunday School groups — Field walked the woman through the Four Spiritual Laws evangelistic tract. Explaining that man was once separated from God but that Christ had bridged that separation, Field asked her if there was anything keeping her from God. The woman prayed to receive Jesus into her heart.

— After a long morning of witnessing near Ground Zero, Donna Jamison and Katie Brazelton, both members of Saddleback Community Church (SBC) in Lake Forest, Calif., were heading to lunch. Just then, Jamison spotted a parking lot attendant sitting in a small, glass booth while simultaneously sensing the Holy Spirit directing her to that very man.

Jamison and Brazelton learned that the single father was deeply worried about what would happen to his son if he unexpectedly died. As Brazelton prayed, Jamison talked about Jesus. She said that, as a member of God’s family, he would eventually see his son again in heaven. Within minutes, the man made a commitment to Christ. “I’ve always heard people say that you can lead someone to Christ in 30 minutes, but I’ve never seen it happen before,” Jamison said. “I assumed it only happened with pastors.”

— NAMB President Robert E. Reccord walked the streets of New York telling people about the love of Christ and how it compels Southern Baptists to serve by providing meals and other ministries. Reccord struck up a conversation with a firefighter named Bill who was loading supplies into his truck.

“I asked him how it was going and how I could pray for him,” Reccord recounted. “He said they had lost 11 firefighters from that station alone, friends of his whom he’d never see again.” The firefighter’s wife went to church with his kids, but he rarely went. “I felt led to share with him the Blaise Pascal quote, ‘There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by anything except God the creator made known through Jesus Christ His Son,'” Reccord said. “That’s what helped Bill realize he needed a personal relationship with God through Christ. Just as he made that decision, his truck was called out. As Bill ran to his duty, he called over his shoulder, ‘Bob, keep praying for me.'”

— The first time Sam Porter stepped into the restroom near Ground Zero in New York it smelled awful. That made it all the more surprising when he walked in two days later and the place was spotless. As Sam investigated more, he found Sean Berry dutifully cleaning the restroom. The Massachusetts music store owner had traveled to New York to give a hand to the relief work. Sean noticed that Sam was wearing a chaplain’s uniform, and he incorrectly assumed that the former Southern Baptist pastor was a Catholic priest.

“Father, pray that I go to heaven,” Sean told Sam, who is actually men’s ministries mission specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Sean then went on to tell Sam that he’d spent the last 30 years trying to work off the sins he’d committed in Vietnam.

“He said he’d done everything he could possibly do in the past 30 years to do penance for what he’d done in Vietnam,” Sam recalled. That’s when Sam and several other on-mission Oklahoma Baptists shared with Sean how he could rid himself of that guilt through faith in Christ. Throughout the next few days various members of the Oklahoma Baptist group also shared with Sean, but as the team prepared to leave Sam wanted to make sure Sean had made a commitment to Christ. He took Sean aside and, using a pocket New Testament, explained to him exactly how he could have a personal relationship with Christ. “I couldn’t leave New York without knowing for sure that he knew Christ,” Sam said.

— In November a group of volunteers went to New York to participate in a Dust Out — cleaning people’s apartments of the dust and debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. Southern Baptists also learned about Port Authority police officers who continue the stressful and gruesome task of recovering bodies from Ground Zero. In February several Southern Baptist women made these men and especially their wives the focus of a special ministry. They put together gift bags of lotions, chocolates and other personal items for the men to take home to their wives.

The message to these wives was to thank them for their contribution in keeping their families functioning while their husbands worked extra-long shifts. The ladies also hosted a meal for the officers at the Port Authority’s Ground Zero headquarters. By showing their appreciation to the officers and their families, these women also were able to talk about spiritual matters. This was just the beginning of what Southern Baptist leaders in New York hope will be a continuing ministry to the Port Authority police.

For more information about the Southern Baptist disaster relief response to 9/11, order NAMB’s “E-ssentials for the On Mission Church” video, volume 2, number 5, by calling 1-800-448-8032.
Tobin Perry is a staff writer for Saddleback Community Church and lives in Lake Forest, Calif. Jon Walker, online editor of Pastors.com and former editor of HomeLife, lives in Hendersonville, Tenn. Reprinted from On Mission magazine, North American Mission Board, SBC. For more information go to www.onmission.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MARY’S MINISTRY.
— How can I be on mission?

Pray for churches and fellow believers in New York City and Washington, D.C. Pray that they stay aware of opportunities to share God’s love with their neighbors during these difficult times.

Look for people in your own neighborhood who have been touched in a special way by the September 11 tragedy. Ask God to show you how you can share the peace of Jesus with them.

Look for ways your church can partner with churches in New York City and Washington, D.C. Ask God to show you how your church can be used to reach people in those cities.

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  • Tobin Perry & Jon Walker