9/11 Chaplains Reflect

Editors Note: Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, spiritual leaders from all traditions gathered to offer comfort to the families, friends and workers. HuffPost Religion is proud to feature some of their reflections 10 years later. 

From Huffingtonpost: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/06/911-chaplains-reflect_n_950574.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008

A Spiritual Pilgrimage To Ground Zero‘ by Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Spirituality Forged In Smoke And Fire‘ by Bishop James B. “Jay” Magness

God’s Love Was At Ground Zero‘ by Mike MacIntosh

Providing Disaster Relief With The American Red Cross‘ by Rev. Earl E. Johnson

Playing Poker With Police At Ground Zero‘ by Rev. Dr. Martha R. Jacobs

About two weeks ago I was driving along the Cross County Parkway on my way into the City. I looked up and saw a commercial airplane flying at what seemed to be a lower altitude than usual. I immediately wondered if it was going to crash into a building nearby. Looking at that plane also reminded me of another plane that I saw about a year after 9/11. I was sitting watching the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team play a game at the stadium on Coney Island. I looked up then too and saw a plane that looked like it was coming right at us in the stadium. I watched that plane as it came closer and closer and noticed that my heart was beating faster and faster. The plane eventually went over our heads and landed at JFK airport several miles from Coney Island.

I wonder if I will ever be able to look at a plane that seems to be doing something unusual and not think back to 9/11. I think this has become my new “normal.”

This awareness of a new “normal” goes back to shortly after 9/11 when I was working at Respite Center 1 as an American Red Cross Chaplain. I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and would walk to the 1 train with my ID, helmet and vest in an unmarked bag. I would get on a train and look at the people around me. They were dressed for work in “normal clothing.” Anyone looking at me would not know where I was going because I was wearing “normal clothing” as well — but in that bag on my lap was attire that was not normal, not usual for a morning commute. I would look around and wonder if any of the people were as aware as I was of how different our lives had become since that fateful day. I did notice that there was not as much chatter on the train as there used to be and that people seemed to be more aware of what and who was around them, but other than that, most people read a newspaper or a book or listened to music through earphones.

At the Chambers Street Station I would get off the train and make my way to the gate where I could gain admittance to what felt like a war zone. The streets were covered in dirt and the guards had guns and seemed to be dressed for war. My ID was looked at and I smiled at the guys, trying to make that human connection with them. Some smiled back; others simply nodded and let me in. I would make my way to the respite center and spend the day with police, fire and recovery/construction workers, helping them to be able to continue to do their work, listening to their stories of pain and anger, confusion and grief. It was a time of deep listening because I could not take away their pain or their anger or their grief. I could not make them “feel better” — but I could acknowledge their feelings and let them know that what they were feeling was “normal.” One night I played poker with a group of police officers. We joked and I listened to their stories as they played cards — doing something “normal” that was not in a “normal” place. When we finished playing, they all said that they felt better and thanked me for playing with them. I wonder if they remember that game and how we created a new “normal” around that table.

I am so thankful for the opportunity to serve those who were there to protect us and recover the remains of those who died. It was not something I ever envisioned when I answered a call to serve God. And yet, it was the right thing to do. And it changed my practice as a chaplain and as a human being. And it established for me a new “normal” in my life and in my work.

This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.


Spirituality Forged In Smoke And Fire‘ by Bishop James B. “Jay” Magness

As the senior military chaplain for U.S. Joint Forces Command, I was in Arlington, Va., with my colleagues for an annual meeting of the senior Armed Forces chaplains assigned to the command staffs of our nation’s Joint, or unified commands. On the morning of Tuesday, the 11th of September, we were riding in a small bus going down the hill from our hotel to the Pentagon where our meeting would be held in an E-ring conference room near the Pentagon Athletic Center entrance. As stated in the opening sentence of the 9/11 Commission Report, the day “…dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States” (p. 1). Driving past Arlington National Cemetery I recall thinking how placid a place that was. Then I came back into reality and remembered the funerals I had done there as a Navy chaplain who had worked next door in the Navy Annex (to the Pentagon) a couple of years earlier.

We were a few minutes late getting to our meeting because our driver, a man with Middle Eastern features, had missed the turnoff to the Pentagon. We had to go into the District of Columbia, turn around and come back for the correct turn into the Pentagon parking lot.

All in all, it was a pretty normal morning — until American Airlines flight #77, still almost full of fuel, came in over the northern horizon and slammed into the side of the building. It was only after we had been evacuated from the building that my life began to change. After being sequestered for a few minutes near the Potomac River, it was apparent that what some of us at first thought was an emergency drill had actually been a sizable explosion on the far side of the building. Collectively we knew that the explosion called for a response. We had been called to action. Through the leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chaplain we were organized into small teams headed by the senior medical officer present. Since all of us had been trained in immediate first aid, we were eager to use our combined medical training and pastoral skills to give aid to the injured and comfort to the dying.

As we worked to rescue the injured service members and civilians to give rudimentary medical assistance, simultaneously we worked to find the ambulances of necessity: a small fleet of mini-vans that belonged to persons who worked in the Pentagon.

After an hour or two, it was clear that all the “easy” rescues had already been made. It was time to re-enter the building and get down to the tougher work of the day. Walking through a maze of circuitous routes our team worked our way back down the corridor and into the Pentagon center courtyard. By this time we had almost forgotten about the acrid smoke we had been breathing and even pulled down our make-shift undershirt material face masks. At about 4:30 or 5 p.m. it became evident that our work of lifesaving had run its course. There were no more persons to be removed from the rubble. We all agreed that it was time for us to leave and let the fire and rescue people take over. Upon leaving and walking back up the hill to our hotel I remember thinking that my 9/11 work was complete. Goodness, but how wrong could a person could be?

For days on end I contemplated how people of faith, people who affirmed the Abrahamic faith that Jews, Christians and Muslims embrace, could do such a horrible thing. I’m not necessarily naive about people who do bad things. After all, when I was younger I spent the better part of a year in Vietnam being best friends with an M-16 rifle and a 50 caliber machine gun. I learned plenty about the bad things people, me included, can and will do.

But somehow this was different. I wondered if maybe President Bush could be wrong, and we were in a religious war.

Something was happening in my psyche and in my soul. It was as though I was two persons: light and darkness. I was trapped in my own dualism where two competing opposites held me in tension. This was a type of dualism that had captured many Americans. Back in those days right after 9/11 the smart money was for the darkness to win.

As a priest of the Episcopal Church and a Navy chaplain, I knew that my vocation was to embody, to incarnate God’s grace and forgiveness. Out of the light that was in me, I could affirm such divinely inspired and generous thoughts. However, there was also darkness. There is a ponderable and somewhat strange quotation of Jesus in the Christian Gospel of St. Matthew. Instructing His disciples about their mission, Jesus said “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Matthew 18:18, NRSV). From the dark side of my being I wanted to bind those folks and those who sent the aviators-for-a-day to kill; bind them over to hell. I began to wonder if the Islamic people with whom I was familiar were engaged in a coordinated sham to deceive us; that somehow they were all behind everything we had experienced on 9/11.

Out of my darkness I wanted to get even. I wanted to make “those persons” pay for the pain they had caused us. In one of my darker moments, I even contemplated the idea that our wayward bus driver was a part of the scheme. You can believe me that it took a pretty vibrant imagination to entertain the bus driver plot. Actually, I learned that when you are living in a world that is dominated by darkness, it’s not such a fantastic reach after all.

Instinctively, I knew that I had to break out of this dark funk. But how? I prayed the Daily Office of Morning Prayer from my Episcopal prayer book each morning. That didn’t do it. I led and attended public worship services. That didn’t do it. I talked with a therapist and with my closest friends. Even that didn’t do it. What could I do?

Desperately, I needed a change of heart. Yet, I found that the change would not come easily or quickly. For months I grappled with what had by then become a spiritual dilemma in my life. Then, without warning, I got a jolt to my soul that awakened me to a new vista, a new way to move into a greater understanding and grasp of God.

In my role as a leader of Navy chaplains, I visited the military chaplains assigned to our new Joint Task Force detention facility at the Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ever since the facility opened, we had assigned a Muslim military chaplain to be on staff and work with the detainees, suspected terrorists whom almost all embraced the Muslim faith. Upon arrival I was told that there was significant conflict between the commander of the detention facility and my Muslim chaplain. Though to this day I am still not clear about precisely what caused the conflict, I was very aware that in the end a significant part of the problem was based in the commander’s distrust of a Muslim chaplain. On my second day I ended up standing between, quite literally, the commander and my chaplain. Instinctively, I knew that as a leader I had to stand up for the person for whom I was responsible. Well, that was it! At that moment the darkness in my life began to ebb away, the light began to shine.

But why? How? The change began when I was able and willing to sacrifice some of my own safety and security and stand up for a chaplain for whom I was responsible but with whom I had religious differences. That day God had led me to the point at which I had the opportunity to sacrifice my comfortable, condescending and divisive views about all Muslims. I learned that day that once I could affirm my chaplain, my Muslim chaplain, that I could begin to be transformed so that in my soul I could see more light than darkness.

That day I began my journey of learning that at times I have to sacrifice my needs in order to affirm and care for the other. I began learning that the affirmation of our spiritual differences is the only vehicle through which we can build the framework for common ground. That day when I practiced the affirmation of my Muslim chaplain, I learned that I could affirm his spiritual needs when I didn’t even understand or share those needs. I began to learn that to do anything less, and to try to base our relationship entirely upon our a quest for common ground, ends up being little more than a self-fulfilling utilitarian quest in which I have regard for the other only when I can get what I want.

Some of my fellow Christians may believe that an unrestricted affirmation of the other’s spirituality will diminish a believer’s faith and belief. I can only respond that I have experienced something quite to the contrary. Not only does such affirmation and recognition not diminish my Christian faith, if anything it has enhanced my faith. As I guard and stand up for the other, the one who believes differently than me, my own faith grows.

Now, it is starting to dawn upon me that 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was telling his people that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, He was talking about the work of being aware of the evil in our midst and in our own hearts, and to behave in such a way as to bind it from spreading and multiplying. Day in and day out, the federal chaplains whom I serve in the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and Federal Bureau of Prisons are doing the work of binding darkness and being ambassadors of light. Though I can only hope and pray that their work and ministry will hasten the reign of the Lord God in our midst, I know for certain that, as they become light in the midst of extreme darkness, God’s light has begun to shine.

Bishop James “Jay” Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Based in Washington D.C., he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 in the rank of Captain, serving as command chaplain of U.S. Joint Forces Command and fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Prior to those assignments, from 1997 to 2000 he was on the Navy Chief of Chaplains’ staff as personnel manager of the Navy Chaplain Corps.

This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.


God’s Love Was At Ground Zero‘ by Mike MacIntosh

Like all of you, this week I have been watching the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City being replayed over and over again. The stench of death is still vividly trapped in my mind to this very day. I can hardly move past the smell of the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center as I do my best to endure the television images of such a horrendous event; an event that has unfortunately altered the state of our great country. The Lady of Liberty wept along with our entire nation on Sept. 11, 2001, as the smoke billowed skyward in the wake of this senseless tragedy.

Please allow me to let you see through the eyes of a law enforcement chaplain how I have found that the sweet aroma of God’s love far surpasses that of the ugly stench of death. My memories are filled with people of 9/11. As much the “hell of it all” tries to creep into of my mind, I opt to go to the memories of the people. From the weary eyes of then-Mayor Giuliani to the distant stare of transit authority, EMT, FDNY and NYPD personnel, to the people I had the honor of meeting, counseling and praying with who miraculously made it out of buildings, the first two weeks of exhaustion were obviously seen on all the responders. There are two words in my memory banks that stand out concerning the first responders and the victims of 9/11. I honestly believe every American needs to hear these words and to know the life-giving expression of them. The words are dignity and respect.

If you were standing with forensics CIS teams outside the medical examiners building, you could hear the muted sounds of sirens off in the distance, the body language of those around would begin to change with the perimeter security, people would begin finishing conversations and in a few minutes the motorcycle escort would pull off to the side as the ambulance would pull into the facility set up by the medical examiners. As the back door was opened and the body bag on the gurney was brought out, everyone stood at attention with hand over heart or in military salute. Every person, with or without tears, reverently showed respect to the fallen and with dignity the individual remains were given over to the fatality team. This to me is the true heart of Americans! We, as a nation, may be drifting off course, going away from our mooring and in great need of a strong moral compass, but the people of America showed themselves to be people of dignity and respect during the very important rescue and recovery portions that make up two major parts of this historical event. Most people do not know, especially the enemies of the USA, that it was not just a city that responded to this critical incident — the entire nation responded. Fire Departments in small towns in the Mid-West to larger departments on the West Coast immediately began driving their equipment hundreds, if not thousands of miles to downtown Manhattan. Police departments, sheriffs, Marshals and agents from all 50 states arrived in the Big Apple to lift up the weary arms of their counterparts and comrades in arms from New York City pastors, priests and clergy from all corners of our great land. Each came humbly, willingly and at their own expense to help comfort the broken hearts of those affected by their fallen countrymen, and to strengthen the overwhelmed clergy, who were on the scene almost immediately, as the news and media agencies unleashed every tidbit of news that could be reported in those early hours.

On Sunday evening, when I arrived at ground zero after a long day helping in other areas in the city, the sunset was memorable and there was a distinct stillness in the air. The background music for this poetic sight was that of tractors and trucks and men and women doing their best to recover or rescue survivors. I introduced myself to the FDNY Fire Chief, a man that had immediately earned my respect. Just standing in his presence and seeing the pain on his face, I knew that he had been deeply impacted by the disaster. I explained who I was, the team I belonged to and offered him our help. He paused and looked over at a white tent with all four sides open much like a tent you would see in someone’s back yard during a wedding reception or an important party. His first words were, “Mike, would you place a chaplain over there at that tent 24 hours a day to tend to the waning men and women? That’s all I have left of my management team.” Absorbing his words was like being hit in the chest. “Yes sir,” I responded. He pointed out two areas of rubble at ground zero and the remains of two firefighters that had been found and were being prepared to be recovered and transported to the morgue. He asked if I would please help wherever needed. Then, as I began to walk toward the recovery sites, I heard from behind me, “Mike!” I turned around and looked at this weary warrior who muttered, “You know, not everyone here believes in God.” “Yes sir,” I replied. We will be very sensitive.” His parting remark to me is as fresh and impactful today as it was 10 years ago, “It’s probably a good time to start?” “Yes sir,” I responded. Then there was a pause. Two or three firefighters or police officers would escort any remains from the pile. They would be lifted out by a huge mechanical arm with a basket on it, then gently lowered to ground level, moving ever so slowly and respectfully.

Waiting in unruffled silence to receive these remains were “pall bearers,” made up of approximately 20 responders who took time to pull away from their work on the pile. Fire, EMT and police all gathered requesting that we pray. EMTs placed the remains on their gurney in the center of this circle. No one was offended by prayer; all were open and willing to give dignity and respect to a fallen comrade.

I prayed for the families, friends and co-laborers who at this time are known simply as John or Jane Doe to all of us. There was no political correctness. We just knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, I found 100 percent of the people that I helped — large groups, small groups, individuals, believers or non-believers — respected the right for spiritual care for every victim and that of the victims loved ones. Helmets were off, heads were bowed and the sweet aroma of God’s love showed itself once again on 9/11.

Then there was the dignity, demonstrated as the gurney was placed into the ambulance, motorcycles started up, flashing light bars and loud sirens roared as they pulled away from ground zero. On the other side of town, at that exact same moment, streams of sirens began their journey to the New York Medical Examiners Facility. The remains being transported with such respect and dignity would be received by over-worked, under-paid public servants who were probably saying silent prayers for their own families as they received a fellow citizen’s remains, on their end with the same measure of attitude of dignity and respect.

Often in times of national disasters, crime scenes and human tragedies, chaplains respond at all hours, night and day. Their job is not to preach, convert or proselytize, but rather simply be a presence representing the heavenly kingdom. Many of us have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of specialized training and education in critical incidence. There is no training like hands-on training though, like riding along on a 10-hour shift with a police officer, volunteering as a community fireman. For the inhabitants of New York City, God’s love did not send the suicide hatred into the World Trade Center. Instead, God’s love sent tender-hearted volunteers to minister to those in need. Often, one “goof ball” or bigoted or angry minister, who claims to be a Christian, can ruin it for thousands of the men and women called to serve, and by doing so, people never hear the message. The message I am referring to is the one that brings the true aroma of God’s love to those in need. After all, the Bible states “Gods is Love,” of which I am a living witness.

Like when Al Baraka, who was standing in a circle with his people in the middle of their brokerage firm on a high up office in WTC, prayed before the tower went down. I met with a blind man and his guide dog. Both had made it out of the building before it collapsed. Yes, the aroma of God’s love was in every stairwell, office suite and any imaginable place at the WTC. His love was reaching out to very frightened people and loving them into heaven.

I have counseled with enough first responders to know that multitudes of them were praying as they rushed to the scene, as they were evacuating survivors, helping the injured and comforting the emotionally scarred people.

The heroic stories of firefighters in the stairwells, laden with pounds of gear, gracious, kind and focused on their mission. If all the stories could be told and written down, I suppose the whole world wouldn’t be large enough to contain them.

Saint Paul wrote, “The love of God constrains me.” He also taught, “The goodness of God leads a man to repentance.”

In closing, may I share with you the insights of Jesus from the first century? There was a big problem, and people were concerned. Pontius Pilate had killed some people and mingled their blood in ungodly ceremonies. The mindset of the day was that these people must have been really bad people to die in such a manner.

Jesus made it very clear in Luke 13 that their thinking was wrong, answering them, “Do you think that when the tower fell in Siloam and killed 18 people, that it was because they were such sinners? That’s not true, and unless you repent, you shall likewise die.”

This is a great lesson learned for me and my faith. The WTC fell to the ground because bad people with no value for human life flew aircraft into it. Jesus is not saying that horrible things happen to horrible people. He is saying that unless every man repents, he is going to die an eternal death.

What is the hope for the future? I believe it is the cross. Arguments and law suits about the cross that supernaturally fell to earth made of beams from a demolished building was and is a sign to all of us. It is to remind us all that the stench of death is quenched through the aroma of God’s love by allowing His only begotten son to die for our sins and that He rose from the grave. That’s the hope for all, that we can be forgiven and cleared because on the cross outside of Jerusalem the only begotten son of God was crucified for us.

There is a verse in the Old Testament that says, “Remove not the ancient landmarks.” For America to recover money is not what we need. We need to return to the great God of Love and allow Him to lead us to safety.

This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.


Providing Disaster Relief With The American Red Cross‘ by Rev. Earl E. Johnson

Until June 30, I had the honor and privilege of managing spiritual care for the American Red Cross at their national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I received disaster spiritual care manager training with Red Cross in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

In the past 10 years, I’ve had the both the privilege and the challenge of recruiting and training highly credentialed healthcare chaplains, counselors and educators to closely collaborate with our federal government and professional chaplaincy partners to provide immediate emotional and spiritual support following a catastrophic mass fatality incident — like the terrorist attacks — but also mass fatality natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, as well as the mass murders at Virginia Tech and the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

Natural and human-caused disasters are not just about physical destruction — these disasters are also emotionally and spiritually traumatic. The trauma of Sept. 11 is still very much with us. It’s a part of our national identity and memory. Managing consequences, building resilience and politicizing fear all have been responses that have emerged in these past 10 years. So what stands out in my work over the past 10 years for a humanitarian organization with a fundamental principle of neutrality?

First, hospice workers make good disaster spiritual care responders.

Though not immediately evident with anecdotal, scientific or theological research, what has emerged in my experience is that those who have training and experience with the chronically ill also make good disaster spiritual care providers, without exception.

Hospice training and experience — being with persons and their loved ones who anticipate grief — is transferable to the disaster arena, where unanticipated death through attack or accident precipitates unimaginable emotional and spiritual trauma to those who suffer immediate and, in most instances, horrific death.

Sometimes there are no answers, there are no words, which may explain or give comfort to those who must endure days and months of suffering and believe in a benevolent, loving creator. To be that compassionate presence, to know how to sit and be with those who are terminally ill and with those who love them. Likewise, when catastrophic events occur, the same training and experience, as well as emotional and spiritual support, transposed to the family assistance center where those who have experienced immediate, traumatic loss can identify and access support for human and material loss. Those who have served in hospices are better trained and conditioned to be with those profoundly impacted by these disaster events.

For persons of faith, disaster response may be the social action of our time. Seeing images of those experiencing profound suffering — whether the twin towers, the Pentagon or the fields of Shanksville, Pa., followed by the 1,600 who died across the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans — there are many who seek answers in religion or seek a theological understanding of the event, as well as how to respond as believers in a faith tradition. There may be those who answer in definite scriptural passages as explanations. For others, there are no simple, clear-cut answers. Prayers for wisdom and compassion are tenets of all major faith traditions. Chaplains know how to be with persons of all major faith traditions as well as those who claim no faith tradition. Board-certified chaplains have faced rigorous clinical training and small group process to be that compassionate presence while one is undergoing health challenges, as well as being the non-anxious presence on the battlefield for those chaplains in the military. The hospice chaplain as a specialization knows how to respond to disaster. This may not be a welcome or helpful time for a theological explanation or generalization. Why did God destroy Joplin, Mo., or kill 562 persons this spring in Alabama, Mississippi and the South in an unprecedented tornadic outbreak? Why do children get cancer?

Early warnings and continuing research for cures and treatments have saved many and will save many. Yet, mass fatality disasters — hurricanes and planes used as weapons — are not supposed to happen domestically in our time, but did on Sept. 11, 2001 and in these intervening 10 years.

My work at the Cabrini Medical Center and Hospice pre-Sept. 11 has helped me immeasurably during these past years at the American Red Cross supporting those profoundly impacted by mass fatality disasters. There is so much help needed for those who serve others in unimaginable suffering and pain. This one insight — that healthcare chaplain clinical training can be transferred to the catastrophic disaster arena — has been discerned over 10 years of recruiting, screening and training those who respond to these disasters, those who support and serve. It is sacred work. I give thanks to all those who have helped others in profound need, and helped us remember and honor their lives then and now.

This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.


A Spiritual Pilgrimage To Ground Zero‘ by Rev. James Martin, S.J.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was working at my desk at America, a Catholic magazine in New York City. That morning my mother called from Philadelphia to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She was worried about me. That was odd, I thought: She knew I worked uptown, not downtown. But turning on the TV confirmed the horror of what she was reporting.

That night, I put on my clerical collar and walked through the empty streets to a nearby hospital to help with victims who never came. The next day, I spent several hours in a counseling center helping bereaved families examine hospital records for their loved ones. Finally, on Sept. 13, with the city still in chaos, a police officer offered me a ride to ground zero, where I would spend the next few days and weeks, along with my brother Jesuits, ministering to the firefighters and rescue workers. There, at this most terrible place, I encountered grace as powerfully as I ever have — in the outpouring of compassion and charity among the rescue workers. This video is a spiritual pilgrimage back to ground zero, 10 years later.

To see a video with chaplains talking about it, check the HuffingtonPost: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/06/911-chaplains-reflect_n_950574.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008

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