As Americans, we have a need to remember and recognize significant dates in our history. July 4th, for example is one of those dates. We also have some dates in our lifetime, that are dates of tragic events: December 7 (Pearl Harbor), November 22 (JFK), April 4 (MLK), June 6 (RFK), January 6 (domestic insurrection attack of the US Capitol.) It is September 11 that seems to have the greatest grip on our minds and hearts.
Six days after the 9/11 attacks, I arrived at the sixteen-acre World Trade Center complex, now known as “Ground Zero.” The scene was one of indescribable destruction with a paralyzing assault on the senses of sight, noise, and smell. I was summarily introduced to three NY Fire Department Chiefs and a cadre of NYPD command officers. After a rushed orientation by the FEMA staff onsite, I was issued a hard hat, gloves, knee pads, respirator, goggles, 2-way radio, and an official blue jacket to be worn at all times with CHAPLAIN emblazoned in large yellow capital letters on the backside.
After a quick meeting in a command trailer, I ventured out into “the Pit.” I was surrounded by mountains of twisted steel, pulverized concrete, and other unidentifiable debris. Taking it all in, I received a tap on my shoulder from an NYPD first responder who simply handed me a garden trowel and hand rake, motioning me to follow him. On hands and knees, I joined about 20 first responders and started digging at a spot where trained service dogs had detected an apparent trace of human remains. No sooner had I started in, my radio crackled in my earpiece, “Chaplain up! Human remains have been discovered at the South Complex! Need you ASAP! Copy?” I responded, “I copy. Will be there pronto.” I thought, where?! South Complex?! I had an office in the South Tower of the World Trade Center for twelve years, but nothing was identifiable anymore. Everything was gone.
With the help of my pocket compass, I was able to find the location to where I was summoned. The remains were already enclosed in a red plastic bag, placed on a stretcher, with an American flag draped over the top. The tattered remains of a blue NYPD shirt were also placed on the stretcher. There were about 80-100 first responders assembled in formation. All eyes were on me as I removed my hard hat, and all those gathered did the same. I offered a very brief committal prayer, closed with a blessing, and led the procession to one of three morgues that had been established at Ground Zero.
I averaged about a dozen committals per day, with a high of 17. Between committals, I dug for human remains. I often engaged in what I call “my alley cat ways”, roaming about and visiting the many first responders. No one questioned who I was or wondered why I was there. They knew. Most of those I visited wanted to talk. I listened. I generally asked them what they had seen on any given day and to describe to me how it made them feel. Some asked for a prayer. Others asked for a blessing. As a former US Army Reserve officer and chaplain, I was very familiar with a wide variety of denominational and faith customs.
Ground Zero was a very sacred place. Everyone who was there knew it. You could feel it. You could sense it. The remains of 2,606 people who died were in the debris, yet to be discovered. For me, the ministry at this sacred place was a ministry of being there. It requires being present, alert, and tuned in. Keeping eyes, ears, and heart open, compelled, and ready to act. “Being there” requires reflective listening-reflecting to someone the words, thoughts, and feelings they have shared. There is no use nor any time for ‘preachy-teachy’ stuff. No platitudes, no need to quote scripture or tell Bible stories. No time for psychobabble or diagnostic impressions. Eyeball to eyeball contact is necessary. Just being present and listening. I recall a quote from Paul Tillich, “The greatest responsibility of love is listening.” Personally, I know there are no words spoken to heal a broken spirit, only the silent vigil of one who ultimately brings peace and comfort, to remind you of your humanity and that you do not suffer alone.
Many years ago as a pastor, I invited a newly ordained and installed deacon to accompany me to a viewing at a funeral home for a parishioner who had just died. She called me the day of the viewing and wanted to come see me for a moment. “I don’t know what to do or what to say at the viewing,” she said. I told her that I understood how she felt and assured her that she didn’t have to do or say anything. Just being present was all that really matters.
Back at Ground Zero, I recall a young fire fighter who served as a first responder. After his shift ended, he came to Ground Zero nearly every day. As he was searching in the debris fields, he would seek me out to bring me photographs, jewelry, shoes, or a desk calendar among other items that he had unearthed. I asked him why he felt the need to show me these things. He said, “I want to be sure that God knows what happened here. You represent God’s love in this place.” I smiled and said, “So do you.” It was our namasté moment of the God in him recognizing the God in me, for both of us on this sacred place called Ground Zero.
A ministry of being there isn’t easy. We tend to think at times that we need to have all the answers, the right words to speak and the solution to every problem. A ministry of being there makes us instruments of God’s peace and messengers of his love, just by our presence.
Rev. Rick Hays
The Rev. Rick Hays was ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1974. He served in parish ministry with churches in Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. He completed a four-year residency program in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and promptly started his own practice offering counseling and executive coaching services with offices in the World Trade Center and Wall Street. Rick was also an officer and chaplain in the US Army Reserves for five years. Many of the soldiers in his unit were fire fighters and police officers, with 20 who perished in the attack on 9/11. He served as a chaplain at Ground Zero for nine months. Presently, he is Honorably Retired, a member of the Savannah Presbytery, and resides in Douglas, GA.