In 2001, my husband, Brian, and I lived on the 24th floor of an apartment building six blocks away from the World Trade Center complex. Our home had a 300 square foot terrace that featured a stunning view of the 110-floor Twin Towers directly to the north of us. We’d only been enjoying that view for two months, since July 6, having recently settled into the area as newlyweds. On the morning of September 11th, Brian shook me awake while shouting, “A bomb went off in the World Trade Center!” We rushed onto the terrace and stood staring at the black smoke and destruction caused by the first plane, when out of nowhere, the second plane came roaring overhead and struck the South Tower just 500 feet above us. We were blown back into our apartment from the impact and knocked unconscious onto the floor of our living room.
When we came to, we immediately grabbed our dog and evacuated, barefoot and still wearing pajamas. We sought safety in nearby Battery Park, but the nightmare continued. The towers soon fell, covering us with toxic dust and debris, and heavy smoke surrounded us in a deadly cloud. We eventually managed to board a boat headed to New Jersey. We had escaped, but we couldn’t return to our apartment for months. The massive implosion of the Twin Towers had registered on the Richter scale as an earthquake, which meant all buildings near the devastated complex – including ours – had to be tested to determine if they were structurally sound.
“Don’t call us again, we’ll call you when the building has been given the OK for you to return,” our landlord said sharply, tired of hearing from us yet again. We were effectively homeless. Within the span of a few weeks, we had gone from an upwardly mobile Manhattan lifestyle to refugee status, grappling with unemployment, PTSD, and suffering health issues. Just like the new name of the destroyed complex, we had reached our own “Ground Zero”.
America had been the victim of a terrible injustice, and I felt victimized as well. My worldview had been shaken, and I began to lose hope in humanity as I seriously questioned my previous beliefs that everyone was basically good. Our lives had become instantly unrecognizable, and I took all the fear, frustration and uncertainly that most Americans were feeling very personally – as if I was being attacked. Losing hope in our future, I sank into a depression.
This state of depression and shock worsened when our dog became sick from licking the toxic dust that had covered his fur when the towers fell. Our veterinary expenses and other mounting bills while we were displaced became a big cause of concern. A close Christian friend had a suggestion: “Redeemer Presbyterian Church created a special 9-11 disaster relief fund, and people from around the world have donated to it. Go get help with your bills; it was intended for people like you!” she urged. People like me?! I identified as a Christian, but my faith was shallow, untested, and compartmentalized. I was a sporadic churchgoer, and that was the extent of my involvement. “But we don’t go to your church!” I protested. “Just go see what they’re offering,” she said, encouragingly.
When I timidly arrived at Redeemer’s office, everyone greeted me warmly. I was asked a simple question about our experience; it was my choice to elaborate. They listened intently. At the end of my story, the Director responded, “What you went through was really horrible and unfair, and we want to meet any needs it left you with. What would help you most right now?”
“Well, paying for my vet bill would really help,” I responded, concerned I was asking for too much. “Well, then, that’s what we’ll do.” They quickly produced a check that covered our vet bill and bid me goodbye. My first experience as an apprehensive receiver had been as dignified and respectful as a person could hope for. As I walked out the door, something shifted inside of me. I felt hope.
At home, I rehashed the conversation to Brian. “Wow, they didn’t ask me about my faith, they didn’t make a plug to go to their church, and they didn’t mention a follow-up meeting. They really listened to me and cared. I felt so empowered and validated! And they gave us money! I’m so glad this crazy vet bill is paid for.” As I showed him the check, I reflected on what this short meeting with total strangers had accomplished: My faith in humanity was restored, the weight of injustice I’d carried around for months had been lifted, my guard had come down, and I didn’t feel like the world was against me anymore.
My newfound hope gave me the desire to learn more about Redeemer. Within a few weeks, Brian and I attended a service. We loved the atmosphere, the music, the people we met, and the message the pastor delivered. We returned each Sunday, eventually making friends, joining Bible study groups, engaging in church activities, and volunteering with outreach programs. All of this led us into a deeper relationship with Christ. We even signed up for a mission trip in 2003 to Peru, and witnessed how God moved and spoke in other cultures. Eventually, Brian came on staff at Redeemer as Chief Financial Officer.
Some years after attending Redeemer, I accepted a position of Missions director, a role I’ve held for ten years now. We evangelize and do mercy ministry in partnership with and under the direction of our host church, oftentimes working with the most marginalized and vulnerable of the world. This role has brought me full-circle, as I’m now in the position of being able to serve victims of injustice, just as Redeemer did for me in the 9-11 aftermath. It’s gratifying to assist people toward restoration through addressing physical needs, and it’s thrilling to witness individuals get plugged into our hosts’ church and then come to Christ as a culmination. In this broken world, injustice and suffering will be a constant presence. Nineteen years after the September 11th, 2001 attacks, I still marvel how a church outreach program stepped into the gap and met me where I was, providing material help, restoring me, while pointing toward the only hope that matters: the hope there is in Christ.
Christina Ray Stanton has been the short-term missions director for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City for the past ten years. You can learn more about Christina’s 9/11 story at her website or in her book Out of the Shadow of 9/11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation. Her new book, Faith in the Face of COVID-19: A Survivor’s Tale, will be available early October..