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20 years later: the transformative power of 9/11

A 9/11 memorial in Breezy Point, Queens, New York, contains etchings representing the community members who died from the events of September 11, 2001. Photo by Canva.
A 9/11 memorial in Breezy Point, Queens, New York, contains etchings representing the community members who died from the events of September 11, 2001. Photo by Canva.

As the world commemorates the 20th anniversary of the horrific events that occurred September 11, 2001, in the United States, a few United Methodists who survived those early days, weeks and months near Ground Zero, share how 9/11 shaped their faith.

Where is God?

Andrea Raynor, a United Methodist elder, was a hospice chaplain in Tuckahoe, N.Y., when she started volunteering two weeks after 9/11 at the temporary morgue (T-Mort) at Ground Zero. Her job: offer blessings on remains and support the workers there.

“The attacks on September 11, and the emotional and physical toll felt by so many on that day and the days to follow, challenged me to a deeper faith,” she shares, adding it prompted hard questions.

Why? Why do terrible things happen? Where is God?

Raynor sought answers and support at Asbury Crestwood United Methodist Church, where its members and pastor, the Rev. Scott Summerville, provided prayer and affirmation of what she was doing both at Ground Zero and at her hospice work.

“Clearly, community is vital to our healing,” she discovered.

“I came to understand that God does not cause terrible things to happen, nor does it seem God prevents them,” she shares. “But we are always held in God’s hands.”

“Sometimes we are given the strength to do things once thought unthinkable. Sometimes we are given the courage to walk where Christ would lead us. Sometimes,” Raynor shares, “we become the stand-ins for God, absorbing the anguish of the brokenhearted.

“And, through the dark hours that have followed, or will come, I know I am not alone,” she learned. “Living or dying, God is present.”

A Sidewalk Minister

Soon after the planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan, Bill Shillady, who was pastor at Park Avenue United Methodist Church at 86th and Park Avenue, and his associate pastor, Bryan T. Hooper, put on robes and liturgical stoles and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

“We opened the church doors, restrooms and the phones and we stood in the front of the church all day long,” Shillady recalls.

Met by waves of people, many dazed, confused and covered in dust, the pastors held hourly prayer times in the church.

“Mostly,” he remembers, “we just listened and shared the hope that God was with us.”

Shillady’s sidewalk ministry continued every day for weeks. Once the daily outreach ceased, Shillady continued to spend an hour before every service, which was four times per week, outside the church, greeting all who passed by.

“I would invite people in to pray. I had remarkable encounters,” he says. “All I tried to do was embody the love of God in my greeting.”

Recognizing the tremendous need, Shillady contacted a local hospital to recruit counselors and social workers. Soon, Park Avenue UMC became an UMCOR listening post, a site where trained professionals met with anyone who stopped by.

“I knew people were in shock, despair and traumatized,” he said. “We kept the doors of the church open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Laity and clergy from around the country volunteered, as did many of the church members."

As Shillady reflects on 9/11, he realizes the experience transformed his pastoring and, later, his current work as executive director of United Methodist City Society and member of the New York Annual Conference cabinet..

“My whole concept of ministry changed,” he says. “To be present in the midst of the world as a beacon of Christ’s love did not necessarily involve a sermon or a word, just a smile.”

From chaotic to contemplative

United Methodist James Law was serving as a New York City prison chaplain when he was called to Ground Zero on September 12, 2001, to minister to those at the center, the spot called the “Pile.”

What happened during those days resulted in a minor fracture to Law’s right angle and a major fracture to his soul. The events propelled Law onto a path to find healing.

Following Jesus’ example as a contemplative, Law designed and started the Contemplative Prayer Service (CPS), which he led every Thursday night until the pandemic forced its in-person meetings to pause in 2020. CPS integrated yoga, lectio divina, contemplation and Taize chanting. This group brought together people from Manhattan and other New York City boroughs.

As he worked to help others heal, Law found his own healing, implementing contemplative practices with physical activity, including kayaking, jogging and walking meditation in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.

“My ministry experience at Ground Zero has set me on a path of living a contemplative life balanced with committed action,” he shares. “I was able to squeeze something positive out of a life changing tragedy.”

Law, who retired in 2018 from active parish ministry in The United Methodist Church, is a captain and chaplain in the Civil Air Patrol, a community where he continues his recovery journey while ministering to others, he says.

“My counseling approaches have been shaped by my 9/11 experience,” he says, sharing that his ministry is based on the fundamental premise that God is always with us.

“Where there is life, there is a hope rooted in the Almighty and All-Loving God,” he shares. “There is always hope. God wants to heal us and to have inner peace. Indeed, a phoenix can rise out of the ashes.”

Sharing God's love

In 2001, the Rev. Dr. Marjorie Nunes (current pastor of Hicksville United Methodist Church in Long Island) received an appointment as part-time Associate Pastor of Vanderveer Park United Methodist Church in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. She also worked full-time at a software company on Madison Avenue.

“On September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to fly to Boston,” she recalls. “But on September 10, 2001, the client called and rescheduled my trip… When I saw the news that morning about the attack on the planes, I could not breathe—I could not stop shaking—I could have been in one of those planes.”

As a church, “We held prayer services, reaching out to those who needed us. This would go on for some time since the emotional and spiritual trauma was great,” she recalls. “We came together as a church and community supporting each other for many months.”

Nunes continues her involvement in outreach ministries such as a food pantry, clothing ministry, after-school programs, a mortgage assistance program and by fostering ecumenical relationships wherever she serves.

“I strive each day to allow God’s love to flow through me into this ‘messy world’ of which I am a part.”

Crystal Caviness works for at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email or at 615-742-5138.

This content was published September 3, 2021.

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