Discovering the Ultimate Chaplain on 9/11
By Dr. Paul de Vries, PhD
September 11, 2001, in New York City, still seems like yesterday. So much of what transpired then and in the days and weeks immediately following remain absolutely vivid in my mind, my heart, and my gut.
As that 9/11 Tuesday played out so utterly painfully, and the scope and ravages of its tragedy were felt and understood even more in the immediate days thereafter, I faced frequent flashbacks to previous community tragedies I had experienced — and at which I had been a first responder, too. There were constant replayings of vivid images of death and loss. Additionally, there were priceless recollections of Biblical Scripture selections safely stored in my heart and memory. There were also persistent prayers. Our Lord Jesus Christ, what is happening?! How can we feel and affirm your Presence in this profoundly horrific tragedy? Please, Lord God, help us empathetically understand and compassionately care for the real needs of all the people around us! Please, God, help us to receive fully and share generously your amazing Presence and your awesome healing grace, effectually, now.
We chaplains are, in a sense, “portable chapels on two legs.” As spiritual first responders we seek to represent God’s Presence effectually — including through our hearts, hands, and hopes. We know we are in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” with much evil present. However, we fear no evil, for the Lord is with us.
On the morning of 9/11, my wife and I were on the train, going to our offices from a nearby suburb of New York City — hers for business, mine for teaching. The commuter train conductor made an announcement about the attacks and then turned his personal radio on loudly for all in our train car to hear. Some passengers moved into our train car from other cars to be able to hear updates.
At a major stop, at the train conductor’s suggestion, my wife and many others got off to catch the next train back home. I continued into Manhattan to be available as a chaplain, to see how I might help my students and colleagues, brothers and sisters, strangers, associates, and whomever. And my wife and I were both especially concerned for the safety of our son, whose gifted-geek computer consulting office was in the shadow of the World Trade Center (WTC).
Actually getting to my midtown office was a challenge. Out of concern for possible terrorists in the train tunnels, the conductors were not allowed to bring the commuter train closer than the 125th Street station. I quickly found a bus across town to Broadway, but no buses were allowed to go south from there. If there were terrorists on the ground, the city did not want to assist their movement. As I waited for a taxi to hail, I witnessed a man break into a small retail store. He set off an alarm and the police arrived in a minute, while he was still collecting his loot. Perhaps he was hoping that all 40,000 uniformed NYPD officers were downtown helping rescue people at the burning WTC twin towers!
A taxicab came soon, and I asked to be dropped off at a corner a half block from my office. I caught the spirit of caution. The cabbie was heatedly talking into his cellphone in a Middle-Eastern language. The eerie 9/11 streets zipped by the cab windows, and the smoke rose from lower Manhattan. I paid the cabbie and entered the raw world of NYC streets and sidewalks, now densely populated with pensive, frightened people.
Immediately, I saw a tall, muscular, handsome, African-American man in business attire, standing petrified, by himself, surrounded by swirls of people on the sidewalk on Broadway, there on the City’s Upper West Side. And he was weeping uncontrollably. Spontaneously, we two strangers bear-hugged, firmly, silently. Minutes transpired. Neither of us had any words.
“Can I help you, my dear brother?” I finally asked, softly. “Yes, please! ” he exclaimed, his voice cracking. He briefly recounted to me that he was supposed to be at work on the 86th floor by 8:30, but his 12-year-old “disobedient daughter” had made him very late. Always this daughter had been a nearly perfect “angel,” but that morning she had been a total pain in the anatomy! She could not find the dress she “had to wear,” and then could not find the right shoes to go with the dress. And then she suddenly remembered that she had more homework to finish, and she could not bear to go to school without the completed assignment. And he had been yelling at her all the while, and then scolding her all the way down the street as he walked her to the school.
Now, what to do? He was now safe only because his disobedient “angel” had thrown him way off his schedule. (Does God also work through such disobedient “angels”?) Briefly we together thanked the Lord for his daughter and her Divinely gifted “disobedience” that morning. Then, at my suggestion, he literally bolted through the crowded sidewalks back toward his daughter’s school to apologize to her — and also to hug and abundantly thank her for saving his life!
I ran too, to my office a half-block away. The safety of our son was weighing heavily on my heart, as well as the welfare of my team, colleagues, students and friends. I guessed that the office — a Grand Central Station in its own right — was the best place for me to reach out to others, and for them to reach me, by phone call or by paying a visit. The cellphone systems were now strained. Sure enough, the very second I unlocked the door, the office phone rang.
It was our son on the phone! Thank God! It was our son, alive!
Tor was safe! He had to be in the WTC that day, Tuesday 9/11, and elsewhere on Monday. However, at 3:00 AM Monday morning he had been awakened by a literal voice from the Lord telling him to switch his appointments for the two days — Monday and Tuesday. He had seriously doubted, but obeyed, nevertheless. Faithfully, in spite of not understanding, Tor did his business in the WTC on Monday 9/10, and was many miles away on the morning of 9/11. [Tor’s personal testimony, observations, and photography are available at: www.RememberSeptember11.us.] We talked for a while in shared gratitude to the Almighty.
When Tor and I hung up, I shouted some grateful praises to the Lord for His voice to our son and His gracious presence — and that our son had obeyed. Faithfully, we have taught our children to hear and to obey the Lord’s voice, without fully realizing that the Divine Voice would also save our son’s life!
That day we counseled others and began our strategy for expanding our first-responder training. I also called a personal friend, a godly man, a Filipino-American, a church leader, who owned an air-conditioning-heating-engineering office near WTC. How was he, I inquired? He explained that he had scheduled an expert team meeting at 8:30 AM that morning, 9/11, in a room high in one of the WTC towers, to plan some timely air-quality improvements. He and the other ten engineers were all coming from other places. However, at 7:00 that morning he had an inexplicable horrible feeling about the meeting, and he called everyone to postpone it for another day. God’s giving him that horrible feeling saved eleven additional lives.
Over the following days and weeks, for more than 3,000 leaders, I facilitated timely training for first responders and volunteer chaplains — with special equipping in crisis counseling and victim ministry.
Nevertheless, we already understand that the ultimate first responder on 9/11 was God himself. Of the estimated 30,000 that were in the WTC towers that morning, more than 27,000 were rescued — the largest rescue from a burning building ever. However, usually there were 60,000 people in the towers on a weekday morning.
That means that approximately 30,000 other people who “should have been” in the WTC that morning did not come to work, to shop, to eat, or to explore — detained by a whole host of amazing factors. The African-American stranger on the street, our son, and the eleven heating-and-cooling engineers on our Filipino friend’s team were a tiny representative sample of a whole host of Divine protections for women and men who had planned to be in the WTC. Thankfully, their plans were Divinely “interrupted!” None of them were “better” than those who perished, but we are grateful for those precious Divine “interruptions.”
As a chaplain, it is an unspeakably precious honor to represent the Lord’s Presence to people in need. That morning of 9/11 we were wonderfully, powerfully reminded of the elemental truth that the Lord is the ultimate first responder, showing his Presence, being the ultimate Chaplain for all of us in need — even well before the terrorists did their awful deed.
Paul de Vries, PhD, (pauldevries.com) is the President of the New York Divinity School, a pastor, author, speaker, and chaplain affiliated with the New York State Chaplain Taskforce. Dr. de Vries is a specialist in hermeneutics and ethics, and he is a life-long advocate for Biblical Activism.