City chaplains assist victims in New York

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)September 29, 2001, Saturday CITY EDITION
City chaplains assist victims in New York Kind words from understanding group eases pain

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Religion Editor


LENGTH: 1447 words

When Baptist chaplains from Oklahoma City arrived at the World
Trade Center ruins, they lacked proper credentials to enter
ground zero.

At the first checkpoint, they encountered a New York City police
lieutenant who easily could have blocked their path and told them
to leave.

But he didn’t.

Neither did anyone else.

These out-of-state visitors, after all, were from a place that
had seen tragedy of its own, that had dug its own dead out of
rubble, that could understand the grief and heartache gripping New

These strangers in the hard hats and yellow disaster relief
jackets had earned the right to go inside.

“What earned us the right… cost us 168 lives,” chaplain Sam
Porter said, referring to the death toll of the 1995 Alfred P.
Murrah Federal Building bombing.

Been there before

Less than an hour after knife-wielding hijackers crashed two
airliners into the World Trade Center, toppling its twin
110-story towers, Mickey Caison picked up his telephone in

Caison, national disaster relief director for the North American
Mission Board, an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, dialed
an Oklahoma number.

His message to Porter, disaster relief director for the Baptist
General Convention of Oklahoma, was the same as one that President
Bush would deliver to U.S. troops.

“Get ready.”

Caison knew the Oklahoma chaplains knew what to do.

No, they had not been to New York.

But they had been there the day Timothy McVeigh filled a 20-foot
yellow Ryder truck with two tons of explosives and blew up a
federal office building.

They had been there the night a tornado ripped a path of
destruction, killing 44 people and damaging thousands of homes and

“Can you put a team together?” Caison asked.

“Sure,” Porter replied.

Flight of faith

As they scrambled to find transportation to New York, Porter and
Leslie Sias, the state Baptist convention’s chaplaincy
specialist, tried to follow protocol.

They tried to contact the chaplains of the New York police and
fire departments and offer their help. They tried to reach the
proper officials who could approve the special badges they needed.

But in the chaos after the worst terrorist attack in U.S.
history, they failed to make a connection.

They decided to go anyway, relying on God.

“We feel like the Lord opened doors that we could not open
ourselves,” Porter said.

God even provided a private airplane from Northwest Aero
Services in Enid for Porter, Sias and Oklahoma City police chaplain
Jack Poe, they said. Owner Elaine Johns arranged for Steven
Epstein, a Jewish businessman with ventures in New York and Enid,
to pay for the fuel.

Two other Oklahoma Baptist chaplains – Paul Bettis and Bob Nigh
– boarded commercial flights to New York as the nation’s airports

The FBI handled transportation for Joe Williams, chaplain for
the agency’s Oklahoma City office and retired chaplaincy specialist
for the state Baptist convention.

After reaching their destination, the Oklahomans still were not
exactly sure why they had come. But figuring it out did not take

They were there on others’ behalf.

“You can memorialize someone in granite, stone and glass
chairs,” Poe said, recalling the Oklahoma City bombing victims.
“Or you can memorialize them by carrying on their legacy.”

Standing beside them

Inside ground zero, the Oklahoma chaplains viewed a horror

To Poe, the scene looked like a Hollywood set – a spectacle that
couldn’t be real.

But it was.

“It was… probably a hundred times worse than we had in
Oklahoma City,” Poe said.

Amid the devastation, they set about to minister. To reach out
to weeping police officers and grieving firefighters. To offer a
hug here, a kind word there, or perhaps just a caring smile.

“It’s really a matter of presence,” Poe said. “You might not be
saying much. You might just be standing beside them.”

Standing beside them in a way only an Oklahoman could.

“We’d pray with them. We’d encourage them,” Porter said.

“They would say, ‘You guys really understand.’ They were
thankful that Oklahoma was represented there.”

Within a few hours, Bettis came across the temporary morgue. The
chaplains on duty needed a break. The Oklahomans looked at each

“Maybe that’s why we’re here,” Porter said.

God’s grace

For five days, the Oklahoma chaplains ministered to rescue
workers and medical examiners in the temporary morgue.

Each time a bag containing a body or body parts arrived – and it
happened hundreds of times – they prayed for strength and comfort
for the victim’s family.

They prayed with firefighters and police officers forced to
deliver the remains of another brother. They prayed with the
examiners piecing together limbs, faces and teeth.

They rejoiced when fillings found in molars offered hope of
dental records helping provide a positive identification.

Such an experience might shake an ordinary man’s soul. But the
Oklahomans said they did not endure the experience alone.

“If God calls you to do something, He will always equip you to
do it,” Porter said.

Lasting impressions

In just 13 days in the Big Apple, these Baptists from the
Heartland made a lifetime of memories.

The chaplains will remember a memorial service conducted by
rescue workers at the scene. The private service honored fallen New
York City police officers, Port Authority officers and
firefighters. At organizers’ request, Poe spoke at the service.
Sias said a prayer.

At least 400 rescue workers attended, ignoring the clouds that
opened as if to shed heaven’s tears.

“They stood there without rain gear… and they refused to
leave,” Poe said.

The chaplains also will remember the patriotism that emerged.

A police officer described to Bettis how he passed a homeless
man outside a convenience store as the officer searched for a U.S.
flag to buy.

“Got any change?” asked the man, displaying a U.S. flag at the
end of a stick.

“I’ll let you know when I come out,” the officer replied.

“Got any change?” the man asked again when the officer,
unsuccessful in his flag search, returned.

“No, but I’ll give you $ 20 for that flag,” the officer said.

The man shook his head “no.”

“As hungry as I am,” he said, “this flag is not for sale.”

The officer stuck the $ 20 bill in the man’s shirt pocket.

The chaplains also will remember the truckload of teddy bears
from the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation – 485 boxes
full – that they unloaded and helped distribute to rescue workers.

“Some of the bears were sent originally from New York to
Oklahoma after the bombing, and they still have the tags on them,”
Bettis said.

The chaplains also will remember the many people whose lives
they touched – and the many people whose lives touched them.

People such as a policeman that Poe met at ground zero. The
officer told Poe about coming to Oklahoma City to help after the
bombing. Poe gave the officer an Oklahoma-shaped pin featuring the
Survivor Tree, an American elm that survived the 1995 blast.

On Sunday, Poe bumped into the officer again – at Yankee Stadium
at a prayer service that drew 30,000 mourners.

The officer introduced Poe to his wife and son and pointed out
the Oklahoma pin on his collar.

“What are the chances,” Poe asked, “of me meeting this guy again
and him having his pin?”

Still in service

The chaplains returned to Oklahoma exhausted but exhilarated –
rejuvenated by the best of America.

“We didn’t come back depressed,” Porter said. “We really came
back full of the joy of the Lord.”

Before long, they’ll pack again and fly back to New York.

Much remains to be done.

“This team is not through,” Porter said.

“God put us together to follow through with the people of New
York to help lead them to Jesus Christ and help them with their
mental, emotional and spiritual welfare.”

In law enforcement lingo, Poe described the chaplains’ status as
“10-8 on Jericho Road.”

“That means we’re still in service,” he said. “Where people are
beaten… and left half dead, chaplains and Christian people can
reach out.”

Day of prayer

The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma called this week for
all Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma to set aside Oct. 7 as
a special day of prayer and giving for relief efforts in New
York and Washington.

Churches or individuals interested in contributing can mail a
contribution to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, c/o
The Disaster Relief Fund, 3800 N May, Oklahoma City, OK 73112,
or call the Disaster Relief Team at 942-3800.

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