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God at Ground Zero

Ray Giunta saw how frequently it drew people closer. He told of leading a weary fireman to Christ on The Pile--as the twisted wreckage at Ground Zero became known--after affirming the man's anger and directing it toward the spiritual source of the evil behind the attack.

A veteran of responses to the Oklahoma City bombing and school shootings through years of work with We Care Ministries in Sacramento, California, Giunta observed: "People will find an answer, true or false. They will not stop until they find an answer."

That "answer" for one despairing woman he met on a ferry crossing had been a plan to take her and her daughter's lives. Giunta was able to lead her to find hope in Christ.

Long Island pastor Jim Sullivan led church members to man one of the Prayer Stations near Ground Zero, where Christians offered to pray for passers-by.

"People in the thick of it don't care if you talk about Jesus," he said of the uncommon openness to spiritual talk on the sidewalk. "They want to hear." But he warned his people against offering pat explanations for why the events of September 11 happened.

"Christians who are...[saying] things like, 'You are going to hell,' are not hitting home," he said. "If they want hell all they have to do is go down there and look at that burning pile," he added, gesturing a few hundred yards down the street. "I embrace the message of repentance but not judgment. Jesus calls us to comfort the brokenhearted."

Seeing a small army of Scientologists among the crowds with their "chaplain" vests within hours of the attacks spurred Nashville pastor Rice Broocks to action. Within a month the senior pastor of Bethel World Outreach Center and leader of the Morning Star International church-planting network began traveling to New York each Sunday after morning services in Nashville to help form a fledgling congregation.

"The openness will become closed if somebody doesn't do something," he said after the new church's second service, held in a church-run theater close to Times Square. "They won't get saved while we watch the news. In Japan at the end of World War II, General MacArthur asked for 100,000 missionaries, and just a handful responded, so the openness was really lost."

As hope of finding survivors faded and the rescue effort became a grim search for remains and evidence, churches and Christian organizations began to get a clearer picture of the massive scale of the challenge--and opportunity--they would be facing for years to come.

From the rubble of Ground Zero, the ripples of grief and trauma spread out in ever-widening circles, across the five boroughs and beyond--the families and friends of the victims, the survivors and their loved ones, the countless thousands who witnessed their city under attack, the 25,000 or so forced to leave their homes for weeks, the 100,000 estimated to have lost their jobs, the untold numbers whose sense of security was shattered.

While much of the early focus was understandably on the needs of those most immediately affected by the attacks, congregations across the city realized that they would be dealing with members and neighbors less obviously impacted.

"We encouraged our people to open up their homes and start inviting their neighbors in, so they could learn to listen, and comfort them, and also identify what the needs are," said Del Rio of his Abounding Grace Church congregation, "because the big concern we have is that a lot of people are going to fall through the cracks."

As the magnitude of the long-term effects of the terrorist attacks became clearer, evangelical and Pentecostal churches encountered a new openness from authorities historically leery. The work of Del Rio and his associates through their Ground Zero task force helped win a newfound level of respect and opportunity for influence.

Before September 11, Del Rio reflected, churches in the city had been infected to varying degrees by the driving spirit of competition that powered the financial district that made New York "the capital of the world."

"Competition is fueled by independence and then a [sense of] survival, to keep what we have. That is the spirit that permeated the churches, so they became fragmented," he observed. "The enemy thought that by tearing down those two towers he could strike a blow not only to the city and its financial strength in the world but to the church as well. But what happened was the opposite. Unity came."

In a city used to dealing on official business with clearly defined, large religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, the typically independent and small evangelical and Pentecostal churches had been easy for authorities to overlook or dismiss as irrelevant. But as they came together in groups, overburdened officials realized that those churches were an invaluable resource.

The efforts of several ministries were noted in the Congressional Record, which recognized their "good works...motivated by their faith in God and love for their fellow man."

Among those cited was the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. Pastored by A.R. Bernard and the largest single church in the city, the center hosted a widely applauded memorial service a month to the day after the attacks. Live satellite broadcasts were held at more than a dozen other churches around the city to enable congregations to reach out to people in their neighborhoods. Several conversions were reported.

Also commended was Glad Tidings Tabernacle, a small Assemblies of God church a stone's throw from Madison Square Garden, which provided chaplains for Ground Zero, sent prayer teams onto the streets and offered free grief workshops.

"This is not a church-membership drive," co-pastor Donna Keyes told a Capitol Hill press conference. "This is not a move by us to convert people. This is about meeting needs, plain and simple."

Even as the media focus shifted from Manhattan to Afghanistan and New Yorkers tried to respond to then-Mayor Giuliani's admonition to get back to normal, there were reminders of the city's wound. At an October Sunday service at Glad Tidings, Mark Bruner dressed up as the prophet Ezekiel to try to take the congregation back to faraway Bible times--but his words about the valley of dried bones from chapter 37 inevitably turned their thoughts to the present-day ruins nearby.

Nor was that sensitivity likely to fade soon, according to Donna Edwards, a counselor with Scope Ministries in Oklahoma City. She joined with the Billy Graham Prayer Center to offer her insights from having worked with another community that had suffered appalling, unexpected violence.

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