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Thursday, Aug 21, 2014

Remembering 9/11: Extraordinary Stories From the Sidelines

September 11, 2012|9:02 am

September 11, 2001 seems like yesterday. So much of what transpired then and in the days immediately following remain absolutely vivid in my mind. As that 9/11 Tuesday played out so painfully, and the scope of its tragedy was felt even more in immediate days thereafter. I faced frequent flash-backs to previous tragedies I had experienced – along with replayings of Scripture selections safely stored in my heart…and persistent prayers. Lord Jesus Christ, what is happening? How can I feel and affirm Your presence in this horrific tragedy? Please help me understand and reach out to the real needs of the people around me. Please, God, help me to receive and share your amazing grace, effectually, now. 

My wife Vicki and I were on the way to our offices from a near suburb – hers for business, mine for teaching. The commuter train conductor made an announcement about the attacks, and then turned his radio on loudly for all in our train car to hear. Others joined from other cars. Vicki got off to catch the next train back home. I continued into Manhattan to be available, to see how I might help brothers and sisters, strangers and associates. And Vicki and I were both deeply concerned for the safety of our son Tor (Paul Victor) whose gifted-geek computer consulting office was close to the WTC (World Trade Center).

Getting to the office was a challenge. Out of concern for possible terrorists in the train tunnels, the conductors would not bring the commuter train closer than 125th Street. I quickly found a bus across town to Broadway, but no buses were going south. If there were terrorists on the ground, the city does not want to assist their movement. As I waited for a taxi to hail, I witnessed a man break into a small retail store. He sets-off an alarm and the police arrive in a minute, while he was still collecting his loot. Perhaps he was hoping that all 40,000 uniformed NYPD officers were downtown helping rescue people at the burning WTC.

A taxicab comes soon, and I ask to be dropped off at a place two blocks from my office. I caught the spirit of caution. The cabbie is heatedly talking into his cell-phone in some middle-eastern language. The eerie 9/11 streets zip by the cab windows, and the smoke rises from lower Manhattan. I pay the cabbie and enter the raw world of NYC streets and sidewalks, now densely-populated with pensive people.

Immediately, I see a tall, muscular, handsome African-American man in business attire, standing frozen by himself in the swirl of people on the sidewalk on Broadway, weeping uncontrollably. He and I firmly, silently hug. Minutes transpire; they seem forever. And there are no words.

"Can I help you, my brother?" I then gently inquire. "Yes! please," he exclaims, his voice cracking. He recounts to me that he was supposed to be at work on the 86th floor by 8:30, but his 12-year-old disobedient daughter had made him very late. Always this daughter had been a nearly perfect "angel," but that morning she had been a total pain in the anatomy! She could not find the dress she "had to wear," and then could not find the right shoes to go with the dress. And then she remembered that she had more homework to finish and she could not bear go to school without the completed assignment. He had been yelling at her all the while, and then scolding her all the way down the street as he walked her to school. Now, what to do? He is now safe only because his "angel" had thrown him way off schedule. Does God work through "disobedient" angels? Together we briefly thank the Lord Jesus Christ for his daughter and her divine "disobedience" that morning. Then, at my suggestion, he literally runs through the crowded sidewalks back toward his daughter's school to apologize to her and thank her for saving his life.

I run too – to my office two blocks away. The safety of our son is weighing heavily on my mind – as well as the welfare of my team, colleagues, students and friends. I guess that the office – a Grand Central Station in its own right – is the best place for me to reach out to others, and for them to reach me – by phone call or by paying a visit. Sure enough, as I unlock the door, the telephone rings. It is our son!

Tor had to be in the WTC that Tuesday, 9/11, and elsewhere on Monday, but at 3:00 AM Monday morning he had heard a literal voice from the Lord telling him to switch his appointments for the two days. He had seriously doubted, but obeyed, nevertheless. He did his business in the WTC on Monday, 9/10, and was many miles away on the morning of 9/11.  [Tor's personal testimony, observations and photography are available at: www.RememberSeptember11.us.] We talk for a while. When we hang up, I shout some grateful praises to the Lord for His voice and His grace. Faithfully, we have taught our children to hear and to obey the Lord's voice – not knowing that it could save their lives!

Soon I learn that earlier in that tragic morning a personal friend, a godly man – an air-conditioning-heating engineer – had scheduled an expert team meeting at 8:30 AM in a room high in one of the WTC towers, to plan air-quality improvements. He and the other engineers were coming from other buildings. However, at 7:15 he had an inexplicable "horrible feeling" about the meeting, and he called everyone to postpone it for another day.

As many as 30,000 people who "should have been" in the WTC that morning did not come – detained by a whole host of unusual factors.

The WTC Twin Towers have fallen; already we know thousands have been killed, including hundreds of very brave rescuers. As I step out to walk along our stretch of Broadway, people stop me, wanting to talk, express anxieties, seek answers, and needing prayer. How do they know my heart even though I am not wearing "clergy clothes?" We are all connected, spiritually interdependent, open to the big questions together, caring for all.

During that tragic day and for several after, NYC seemed spiritually awake. What truly matters mattered, and we briefly lived the spiritual connectedness our hearts always desire. Yes, 9/11 was an awesome wake-up call – but not yet the spiritual awakening we need. For that awakening we must still seek the Spirit, study, work and pray.

Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, itinerant speaker and author. Dr. de Vries is Senior Pastor of Immanuel Community Church in lower Manhattan, and since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.
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