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God at Ground Zero

Christians working near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy say the Holy Spirit is moving in special ways to soften a city known for spiritual resistance.

The morning it all changed, Rick Del Rio was at a breakfast meeting with friends at a midtown Manhattan hotel. When he learned of the attack on the World Trade Center he jumped on his motorcycle and rode to his Lower East Side home as fast as he could.

There he took out his hooped gold earrings and found a black shirt and clerical collar to replace his more usual street clothes so that he would look more like a typical pastor, if anyone should ask. Then he headed for the horror.

Although it is not something he boasts about, Del Rio was commonly held to be the first minister on the scene--which was to become his virtual second home in the coming weeks.

He helped people scramble away from the ruins, hunted for survivors and hugged rescue workers devastated by the carnage that confronted them. Only later did he reflect that if his meeting had been any closer to the Twin Towers he would have arrived in time to be lost in the collapse with some 3,000 others.

After 20 years of unnoticed and unassuming ministry among some of New York's toughest--those he affectionately calls "knuckleheads" plucked from the streets--Del Rio soon found himself unexpectedly thrust into the public spotlight.

The hard-charging 50-year-old with several tattoos and more than a passing resemblance to singer Billy Joel won the nickname "Father Harley" from rescue workers for his bike--whose screen proclaimed "Clergy." And he became an unlikely symbol of hope in a city whose spiritual climate was changed by the terrorist attacks as markedly as its physical profile.

He stood near President Bush as the country's leader visited Ground Zero and promised the rescuers that those responsible would hear from them soon, and he visited the Capitol to tell government representatives how churches had a vital part to play in the post-September 11 operation.

"There is a heaviness and a grief and a despair, but in it people have turned to God, and there is a sensitivity, more of an awareness that they need God--need something greater than themselves," he reflected in late October at the command center of the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force he established with other city church leaders, not far from the wreckage. "For the church, I think if we seize the moment, men and women are really ready to hear the good news."

Forever Changed

Six weeks after the terrorists struck, pastors, counselors, relief coordinators and volunteers across the city agreed that New York was still open to hearing about God and receiving His comfort in ways previously unheard of in the city renowned for its take-no-prisoners approach to life.

"The Big Apple is ripe for picking," said Robert Festa, a former New Yorker who returned from Seattle as one of several thousand Christian volunteers from across the country who arrived to help with the relief and recovery effort. "It's a kinder, gentler city," he observed.

It was evident near Ground Zero, where crowds gathered solemnly to stare beyond the barriers still blocking many streets for a glimpse of the yet-smoldering site. The city of ever-present cell phones also became untypically quiet near the ad hoc shrines that had sprung up, clusters of fading "missing" posters declaring unfulfilled hopes on walls and outside the city's police and fire stations.

Typical were the scenes outside Battalion 9, the Broadway fire station whose sign boasts "never missed a performance" and that lost 15 of its men when the Twin Towers came down. The walls and sidewalk were covered with flowers and messages of thanks and regret. Passers-by stopped to add their condolences to the 400 pages of prayers and gratitude already offered or to light candles and pause quietly for thought.

Not that New York's wisecracking humor was entirely absent. "Wanted Dead or Alive: Osama Bin Laden" posters could be found in the windows of police stations and adult bookstores alike near Times Square.

Nor had the city's entrepreneurial spirit been entirely lost, either. Stores near Ground Zero had window signs saying they sold cameras and film, while street vendors offered patriotic pens and caps, and open-air artists replaced their usual offerings with pictures of the World Trade Center and heroic firemen.

At Harvest Christian Fellowship on West 56th Street, Randy Miller urged some 90 newly arrived volunteers to "walk softly, be respectful."

"We don't want to look like we are taking advantage of the situation," the veteran of relief operations in Kosovo, Bosnia and El Salvador cautioned. "It's not, 'Let's get as many souls as we can.' We are saying, 'Let's share the love of God.' We are not here to be over-the-top. We are here to be under the door."

Miller's plea for discretion was echoed across the city by leaders seeking to balance sensitivity with holy boldness.

"There has never been a time when the Spirit has prepared people more to receive the gospel," said Fred Baye, director of the Billy Graham Prayer Center, which was set up to offer telephone counseling and comfort. "But we need to do it very politely and diplomatically. And through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, only do it when we have established a level of comfort with that person."

At the same time, many encouraged a clear presentation of the gospel. "These holes in people's souls will be filled with something, and if we don't fill it with the nobleness of God's message of hope, it will be filled with something else," said Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He spoke as more than 1,200 people filed into Calvary Baptist Church near Central Park for a free two-day training seminar for pastors and lay members that drew participants from across the city.

"Sorrow never leaves you where you find it," said Clinton as attendees headed for workshops on trauma, children and grief, and biblical perspectives on suffering. "There will be and is an effect. These people are forever changed--traumatic events either move you toward God or away from Him."

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