By Fred Edwards
It was the summer of 2001 and I was in my sixth year as pastor at Suwannee Baptist Church on the gulf coast of West Florida. It was my first church as pastor, and I would retire from there eighteen years later. I attended a Florida Baptist Disaster Relief training in June of that year where I choose feeding as my ministry. Little did I know at the time that in just a few short months I would be in New York City preparing meals for the workers of one of the most horrific events to take place in my lifetime, – 911.
We were located one block from Ground Zero where the rubble and bodies were being removed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We had the privilege of working side by side with The Salvation Army around the clock preparing and serving hot meals to the thousands of volunteer workers from all over the country. These men and women poured themselves into the effort of saving “one more person” from the giant hole in the earth where the twin towers had once stood.
Our shift was from 10:00 PM till 10:00 AM each day. We prepared meals steadily until around 2:00 AM each night. We usually got a break from our task until about 3:30 AM when we would begin the breakfast shift for the morning crew. During our break each night we could walk through the last armed guard checkpoint and up to the actual crater in the earth where large cranes, bull dozers, and semi-trucks were busy removing debris. The area was so big and deep that the equipment almost looked like Tonka Toys. It was here that we had the opportunity to talk with the workers as they moved in and out of the hole in shifts. You could see the physical and emotional drain on the faces as they exited.
This is where the “ministry of presence” became a reality to me. We would meet the workers coming out of the hole with a cold bottle of water, a snack, and a “thank you” during our time there. It was when they would stop with us that the emotions of the past hours would begin to unfold in words and sometimes in tears. It was hard for all of us. After all these years I still get emotional at times when talking about what we saw and experienced there. It was good to be able to share the love and hope of Jesus with people who were suffering emotionally and let them know that God was with them each step of the way.
One quick insert – for me, the “banner of hope” was the huge steel beam in the shape of a cross that was found by a man I only know as “Big Frank.” I enjoyed several visits with him while I was there. That cross had a melted fire-fighter’s jacket draped across the arm of the cross. The cross was placed at the entry point of Ground Zero as a symbol of God’s goodness and protection of our nation in the darkest hour.
I came back to Florida a different person. I had used the Biblical expressions “our lives are as a vapor” and “we have no promise of tomorrow” in funerals and sermons many times but from that time forward they were used in a much more urgent manner than before. To see that many people leave this world in a matter of minutes makes you realize that not a day goes by that thousands of people leave this life lost and without hope. I preached with the certainty of death and judgement in the forefront of every message after witnessing that. And also, the love and goodness of Jesus to undergird that message. He is, after all, our only hope.
My experience at Ground Zero left me with desire to serve God through serving others in need. I have spent the past twenty years heavily involved in Florida Baptist Disaster Relief. I find it here that I can meet people who have been devastated by one crisis or another and in need of physical, emotional, and spiritual help. I have trained in other areas of Disaster Relief ministry since 2001 and God has given me many opportunities to be His “hands and feet” to minister to hurting people. I knew before I left New York that I would serve God through this ministry just as long as He granted me the health to do so. After retiring from full time pastoral ministry, I have accepted the position as State Volunteer Chaplain Coordinator so although different in one respect, I am still able to spread the Good News to a hurting and helpless world. God is so good.
During one of our volunteer training weekends in south Florida this spring I had the opportunity to go to the site of the Surfside Condo Collapse. For a brief time, I saw 911 all over again, only in a smaller setting. There were the onlookers getting as close as possible, a mass of law enforcement from every department, fire fighters, feeding units, paramedics, doctors, barricades, sirens, equipment and motor noise, the smoke and dust of the collapse, and of course, the absence of the building. There is just something about the finality of something missing that was there before.
One thing stuck out to me this time. The size of the event doesn’t change the effect that it has on the lives of those involved. Not the law enforcement, not the first responders, not the media, and certainly not the people effected personally. There is still the need for the presence and hope of Jesus. That is where we as Disaster Relief Volunteers and as Servants of Christ are so very important.
People need Jesus. We are tasked with seeing that He is available in the worst of times to the most helpless of people. These last twenty years have given me an urgency to see as many people as possible come to know Jesus. It has also helped me to realize that every minute with my family is precious and God given. I don’t take that lightly.
Published August 31, 2021