I walked out through the gated exit of the “pile” past police and security personal with a filthy yellow raincoat, hardhat and goggles onto Church Street where makeshift memorials were in abundance. Thousands of people from all over the world were drawn to Ground Zero to gather there. An older, dignified couple immediately caught my eye. “You been in there?” they asked, looking over my shoulder into Ground Zero. I noticed he had a shirt on that said “Alabama” and asked him if that was he was from there. “Yes sir we are.” I asked if they had come to New York to stand with the city and feel what she was feeling and he replied, “Yes sir that’s right.” I didn't know what to say to them. I told them “Thanks for coming to New York, the city appreciates it.” They started crying and it was too much. As I walked away I started crying too. In fact I’m crying as I write about it.
"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.
I turned around to see a fireman standing next to his partner who we had just given a sticker of an American flag to. The flags, just the right size for a hardhat, said, “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know Who holds tomorrow. The Lord Reigns!” The workers on the “pile,” as the workers referred to the rubble, eagerly received those flags. Inside of Ground Zero dozens of steelworkers, firefighters and rescue workers were wearing the flag with the "The Lord Reigns" on their hardhats. “Yea I am, I'm with the chaplains,” I told the abrupt firefighter. Standing there on the rubble of the World Trade Towers and the associated buildings he motioned with his hands pointing to all the destruction and asked, “Then why did God do this?”
Richie was angry and confused. An officer from his station had lost his life responding to the first alarm. I told Richie that it wasn’t God who had done this but that it was the work of evil men. He responded sharply to that with, “Yea. The free will thing, right?” I told him yes that was true, that people had willingly done this senseless and evil act.
As he continued to press the questions about others and their evil deeds the other chaplain I was with stepped in between us. He asked Richie, “What about you? What about your family? Who is teaching them about God? Who is teaching them about Jesus Christ? Are you? If not you then who?” Richie sheepishly admitted that no neither he nor anyone else was teaching his family and children about God’s love.
My friend asked Richie if he wanted to be the kind of man that taught his children about God. “I would like that yes,” Richie responded. “Well how are you going to do that if you don’t know Jesus Christ yourself?” Richie with his head down said, “I really don’t know.” “Richie, would you like to know Jesus Christ, would you like to have your sins forgiven and become the man you really want to be?” Richie melted, looked up slowly and said, “Yes I would like that.”
After some talk Richie was bowing his head in prayer in front of his partner asking Jesus Christ to come into his life. Right there on the pile!
(pictured above Gerry Brown, chaplain and director of U-Turn for Christ and Joe Paskewich, chaplain and pastor of Calvary Chapel in Uncasville, CT, ministering on "the pile" not far from where we met Richie. To the left is the flag sticker we were giving out to Ground Zero rescue workers, steelworkers, firefighters and police officers. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.
Sometimes Al Braca hated his job, but he loved God and he loved his family. An elder in his church, Calvary Chapel Four Winds, in New Jersey, Al was a vibrant witness to his co-workers. So much so that it earned him the nickname the "Rev." He was a vice president for Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm whose offices were above where the first plane hit the Twin Towers. Of the 700 employees on the floor that day none survived.
His wife Jean, in sharing his story at the Festival of Life meeting (more on that in a few days) told everyone gathered that many days Al hated going to work. That many people made fun of his faith, did cruel things like leave profane screen savers on his computer and often times generally disrespected him for his faith. Yet all knew that Al really cared for them, that he loved them and that he loved God. A survivor of the first Trade Center terrorist attack in 1993, Al then helped a woman with asthma get to safety. When employees would fall into hards times in their lives, their relationships, their marriages or when they ran into difficulty, they often came to Al who prayed for them and with them.
After the first plane hit, several Cantor Fitzgerald employees called their loved ones and said their goodbyes. Al's family did not get a call that day. But many of the employees told their families they were OK, they were praying with a man named Al. It turns out, and the story has been confirmed through multiple sources, that Al was leading a prayer meeting and sharing Christ with as many as fifty people in a circle. These were people that Al had prayed for regularly for years without much success. Now they were praying together in their last moments in the Name of Jesus.
It turns out that in the midst of the chaos Al did try and call home, but was unable to get through. He did get through to a MCI operator, who he asked to tell his family that he loved them. It took a month before his family ever got that message.
Al was a dedicated man with is priorities in order. His son Chris said of him, "The last thing my dad did involved the two things most important to him - God and his family. He loved to lead people to Christ. That takes away a lot of the hurt and the pain."
We feel for the Braca family and we learn from the example of a life well lived. Up until the moment of his death, Al was loving his family, serving his co-workers and trusting God!
With the fifth anniversary of September 11th upon us, I'm going to post a 911 story of faith, hope and love everyday this week. I, along with our church, had the great privilege of ministering at Ground Zero and throughout New York City for almost a year after the attacks. I hope these stories let you in to another side of 911, where God was actively working in people's lives. The first is the story of the Ground Zero cross.
When laborer Frank Silecchia found a perfect twenty-foot cross in the rubble of the fallen towers three days after the atttaks, he cried for twenty minutes. “When I first saw it, it took my heart," Silecchia said. "It helped me heal the burden of my despair, and gave me closure on the whole catastrophe." He found the cross standing straight up surrounded by other smaller crosses as he was looking for bodies in the rubble. Workers placed the cross on a forty foot foundation where many went regularly to meditate and pray. Somebody etched into it "God Bless Our Fallen Brothers."
Is this a miracle of God? “Some people will say it's velocity or physics that put it there. To me it's an act of God.” said Silecchia. The worldwide press, including the Jewish World Review reported on the cross as a symbol of hope found in the middle of so much sadness and destruction.
While some might ask where was God in this disaster, others were seeing the presence of God coming out of the midst of the rubble. "There's no symmetry to anything down there," an FBI chaplain said, "except those crosses."
Because of our relief and response involvements at Ground Zero, we were privileged to bring visitors on to the "Bush Platform" inside of the areas closed off to the public. The "Bush Platform" was the wooden structure constructed for the president to address the Ground Zero workers when he made his famous "I can hear you!" speech. From the platform you could view all of the damage from the attacks and fallen towers. In the early days after the attacks, the 'pile' as it was known, was still smoldering and smoking. The dust, the smells, the smoke, the massive destruction left all who entered speechless and usually somewhat confused, if not angry. But everybody that saw the cross inside of Ground Zero was somehow moved by it. Even comforted by it.
One day while on the platform with a NBA basketball team I pointed out the cross to one of the towering players. I told him the story of how it was found and how workers, firefighters, police and others working on 'the pile' would gather there for prayer services. This monster of a man was moved to tears. He told a team mate who told a team mate who told a team mate. Soon this whole team of giants were all looking, some kneeling, some crying, some calling their mothers on their cell phones to tell them there was a cross in the rubble of Ground Zero. But all were visibly, and some physically, moved the sight of a simple steel cross found in the rubble.
There is no denying there is a power in the symbol of a cross and there is definitely something about that cross. As bewildering as it was to be inside of Ground Zero trying to sort the whole situation out, the cross somehow brought a peace to all who saw it standing there.
God has not left us alone or without hope. And sometimes he grants us visible reminders. In a world that sometimes seems to make no sense, God continues to show He is there and that He cares. The cross continues to be a symbol of hope.
Come back each day this week for another story of faith, hope and love coming out of the rubble of Ground Zero. The devil never wins. God still rules.