Twenty years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a Navy chaplain who ministered to hundreds of grieving families at ground zero has shared the incredible ways God showed up amid tragedy and provided comfort to those suffering.
Jim Jenkins, who was a Navy chaplain serving with the Coast Guard as part of the Chaplains’ Emergency Response Team, traveled to ground zero mere days after al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners and flew them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people.
What Jenkins saw when he arrived at the wreckage of the towers will forever be engrained in his memory.
“The only way I could describe it is, I saw footage of Berlin after the bombing. It looked like that as far as your eye could see. The TV couldn't give you a sense of the scope of the massive debris field,” he told The Christian Post. “It was so intense, so sobering.”
“The Lord had the appointments made for me already, who I was going to talk to, who was going to walk up to me, and what I was supposed to say. I got there right when I needed to, and not a moment before.”
The following two weeks were a blur for Jenkins. For the first part of the day, he and his team would minister to the rescue and recovery workers at ground zero, the smell of burnt flesh lingering in the air.
“For the first three hours of the day we were actually at the pile where they were looking for bodies,” he recalled.
The second part of the day, Jenkins comforted those at a makeshift morgue: “It looked like a MASH hospital attached to the medical examiner's office,” he said. “It was full of refrigerated trucks with body parts in it. They were trying to identify people.”
But the most emotionally, spiritually and mentally taxing part of his day were the evenings when he would accompany grieving families to ground zero. He stood by, praying for people as they watched their loved ones move from the rubble to the stretcher.
“I talked a lot about the promises of God and of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter,” Jenkins reflected. “I really felt that, when I was ministering to people, they weren’t seeing my face. I believe they were seeing the face of God and experiencing His favor.”
When he thinks about his time serving at ground zero, Jenkins said he can see God’s hand in nearly every circumstance. He shared the "incredible" way then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani personally comforted first responders, chaplains and grieving families.
“Giuliani came over to me, grabbed both my hands and stared at my face for a moment. ‘Thank you for coming here to be with us,’" he said. “It meant so much to see him right there, grieving with us.”
In another instance, a man named Cleveland knelt on the Staten Island Ferry and asked him to pray amid a bomb threat.
One of his most vivid memories, however, is how a German Shepherd rescue dog comforted him as he sat on the ground one afternoon, exhausted and emotionally spent from the wreckage around him.
“He came over and he put his head in my lap,” he said. “I looked up at the dog, and the dam broke. I finally just cried for the first time since I’d gotten to ground zero. It was this incredible cathartic moment. The Lord took care of me right when I needed it.”
Through a series of unlikely events, Jenkins would connect with the dog’s owners years later.
After returning home, Jenkins struggled to cope with what he’d seen at ground zero. He developed a precancerous condition of his sinuses and esophagus due to breathing in toxic chemicals. He was diagnosed with PTSD and to this day has recurring nightmares that his hands won’t work as he tries to retrieve bodies from the rubble.
But even in his darkest moments, Jenkins said he feels the hand of God comforting him, telling him that He is present in even the bleakest of circumstances.
“Something happens when you pray, when you cry out to God with groanings too deep for words,” he said. “Wherever we are, the Lord will meet us right in the midst of our brokenness.”
Jenkins shares his story in his book, From Rubble to Redemption: A Ground Zero Chaplain Remembers. In his 2014 book, Fatal Drift: Is the Church Losing its Anchor?, he challenges the Church to remain steadfast in the face of obstacles.
He noted that tragedies present a unique opportunity for the Church. Like 9/11, in the midst of a pandemic, many people are asking, “Where is God in the middle of this?”
“I can tell you firsthand that God is here,” he emphasized. “I'm encouraging believers to remember that. Jesus helped me in my rubble. He helped me when I was afraid. This is an unusual, open door for the Church to be forthright about who the Lord is and what He can do.”
In the years following Sept. 11, 2001, numerous first responders, survivors and pastors have shared stories of how God proved Himself faithful amid tragedy.
Recently, Mickey Stonier, who serves as an executive pastor at the Rock Church in California, and a fire chaplain, revealed how his time as a first responder at ground zero taught him the true meaning of servanthood.
“When you are there at Ground Zero, knowing the world has completely changed, the only posture you can take is that of a servant,” he said in an interview with Rock Church writer Susanna Fleming. “That is what a pastor or a chaplain really is at the end of the day — a servant. You feel so humbled that you are the one who gets to be there for those who are going through this horrific, life-changing experience, and all you can do is just serve them.”
“I have come to realize that a lot of people I work with on a weekly basis are having a 9/11 experience in their lives. It might not be on the news, but it is a traumatic moment in which their world is crumbling down around them. In those moments, I know what to do. I know I get to serve.”
In an increasingly polarized society, Stonier issued a call for unity, urging believers not to forget their shared humanity in Christ.
“From 9/11 to early October, our country pulled together and was very unified because of what had happened. Then we started to get into the blame faze and started to fragment again. The world has been through so much trauma this year, and polarization has caused us to forget to honor one another. But as Christians, we are called to serve and love another, no matter our different backgrounds.”
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org