"I'll go!" That was the response of Al Serino, a member of our church when I suggested a week after the attacks that we go to New York to hand out literature and pray with people in the streets.
When I saw the towers come down on television, I knew that I had to go. I didn't know how or what I could even do, but I knew I needed to go. We had a missionary staying at the church, Steve Baughman from France, and I asked him if he wanted to go down with him. He said he needed to pray about it, and then a few minutes later told me, "Yea, sure, what are we going to do?" Good Question. Let's get down there and see what the Lord has for us.
Steve and I piled into my Toyota truck with some clean clothes and backpacks and headed down to Ground Zero. When we got into the city it was scary quiet. Driving through Manhattan at night we drove right through the middle of Times Square, there wasn't a person in sight and all the lights were out! It felt really strange in the city.
We continued to drive towards the fallen towers until we met with a city closed from Canal Street south. I drove up to the barriers with police officers guarding the streets and told them I wanted to get down to Ground Zero. They asked me who I was and what I wanted and I told them I was a pastor. They sent me to the Amory on Lexington Ave.
The Armory had been turned into a "Family Bereavement Center" where families looking for loved ones would come and fill out missing persons reports. We went up to the center, up the stairs only to be met by loads of police and security. They asked us what we were doing and we told them we were pastors. They informed us that the center was closed and would open again at 6:00 AM. I turned to Steve and told him, "I think we're going to get in and minster to people." He wasn't so sure.
That night we slept in my truck, two guys in that tiny vehicle, waking up in the morning smelling like animals. Running our fingers through our hair we headed back to the Armory. Security was much stricter than the night before and we got stopped numerous times attempting to get in to the Armory. At the top stair, we got stopped again at the next tier of security and were asked again what we were doing. We told them we were pastors and the police officer said, "Well you better get over there, they are looking for you!" Looking for us? Doubtful, but here we were.
Once in the Family Center we went to where they were setting up the chaplains station and it was being coordinated by a west coast Calvary Chapel pastor and fire chaplain. From that moment we began to serve as Ground Zero chaplains.
I came back home that weekend to teach at church and saw Al Serino cleaning up after the monthly Men's Breakfast. I told Al all what was going on in the city and how people were walking around stunned. It wasn't at all like New York. Everybody you met wanted to talk. I told Al that it seemed like there was a lot of opportunity to listen to people and to talk with them. Al looked at me and said, "I'll go!"
Al took a map, a $50 hotel reservation, 2,000 pieces of literature and a table to setup somewhere in the city to offer material, prayer and bottled water. People from the church would be arriving the next day to help him. He arrived 1:30 in the morning and started out the next day in Union Square, a popular New York City park. He called me that day to tell me that the literature was gone in few hours.
Since his initial willingness, Al ministered in the city daily for nearly a year, leading teams and showing God’s love to the people of city. By December 1, 2001, over one thousand people came to be part of the teams, and on Thanksgiving weekend alone, teams gave out nearly 25,000 pieces of literature. Al coordinated teams that gave out over 350,000 copies of the booklet, "Fallen but not Forgotten" (pictured above.)
Al ended up helping to setup a feeding and respite station for Ground Zero workers. Police, Fire and others working in the search and rescue and clean-up came to the center 24/7 for over a year. He mobilized volunteers for the Salvation Army, the city of New York and other organizations. Every morning Al trained and sent out "Hope Teams" from all over teh USA that were praying with people and talking with people about the love of God. He was on the ground floor (the inviting and organizing team) for a huge "Festival of Life" with Mike MacIntosh, that set up festivals in every borough. God blessed Al's willingness to go.
Today, Al is a pastor and the field director for Willing Hearts Helping Hands, a relief and response ministry. On September 11th, 2005 Al sent the first teams to Mississippi to assist in the cleanup and rebuilding of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina. He started by organizing teams to feed firefighters, police and relief workers. To date Al has helped clean out, gut and rebuild dozens of houses on the Gulf Coast.
What started as a church member being willing to give a couple of days out of his schedule became a full-time ministry. Al ended up setting up an office in Times Square and mobilized thousands of people to serve in numerous capacities throughout the city until September of 2002.