“Get up! Get up! Someone’s bombed the World Trade Center!”
My husband and I were living on the 24th floor of a residential building six blocks away from the World Trade Center complex on September 11, 2001.
Brian woke me with shouts, and we rushed onto our small terrace. We stood shocked and speechless as we saw the North Tower become engulfed in flames. A few minutes later, a second plane swooped over my right-hand shoulder, just 500 feet above us. We watched helplessly as it banked right and flew directly into the South Tower.
The force of the plane’s impact blew us back into our apartment from the patio. Knocked temporarily unconscious, we woke on the living room floor. Still barefoot and in my pajamas, I grabbed our dog, and we ran down 24 flights of stairs out the exit door. We sought shelter in nearby Battery Park. But soon after we arrived, the towers collapsed, one after the other, covering us in layers of dust and debris. Clouds of thick black smoke blew over us, threatened to asphyxiate us. The park we had run to for safety now entrapped us.
“Brian, is this it? Are we going to die?” I asked my new husband of just over a year.
“Maybe,” he responded sadly. We took cover against a brick wall of an old fort, where we recited the Lord’s Prayer and said goodbye to each other. I felt angry that life was about to end for us—we were in our early 30s—and dreaded what was to come next. Would our deaths be slow and painful? Where do our souls go after we die? In those moments by the fort, I became very aware that I hadn’t put much effort into a relationship with God. So why would I spend an afterlife with him?
As the dust settled, we eventually escaped Manhattan through a boat evacuation that took us to New Jersey. We had survived, but our struggles were just beginning. We couldn’t return to our apartment, since the area around the World Trade Center was restricted by police. Homeless, we slept on friend’s couches. We both lost our jobs. My husband lost a close friend—a fraternity brother—in one of the towers. Our dog became deathly ill from unknowingly ingesting pulverized glass from the debris during our escape.
The attacks and surrounding events left my husband and me anxious and depressed. We suffered from PTSD, running for cover every time we heard a plane fly overhead.
Meanwhile, life moved on, and our dog slowly recovered. But we couldn’t ignore our financial situation any longer, as the credit card bills were stacking up.
“Go to my church, Redeemer Presbyterian, for help with those bills,” advised my friend Michelle. “Donations have come in from all over the world to help 9/11 victims. Redeemer has set up a special fund to meet those needs. You should apply for that aid.”
Balking at the idea of asking for help, I argued, “We don’t go to your church, and I’m sure there are people worse off than we are.”
Michelle responded, “Go anyway! You are exactly who this fund is for.”
Redeemer’s 9/11 Fund
In the aftermath of September 11, churches across the city scrambled to address the pain and suffering that the attacks generated. New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded by Timothy Keller, was one of them.
“Immediately, we pulled together a mercy and justice team that was made up of different leaders of various departments at Redeemer,” said Terry Gyger, Redeemer’s executive pastor at the time of the attacks. “We decided to establish a fund for victims of the attack, and we met several times to determine how best to help.”
The fund would cover food, rent, clothing, subway metro cards, counseling services, and pro-bono legal advice. Advertisement of the fund happened largely by word of mouth.
“We didn’t have to track people down,” said Honya Metroka, associate director of the diaconate department that spearheaded the effort. “People would hear about the fund and come directly to our offices. I would arrive to work at 8:00 am and the reception area would be filled with people. We had to hire additional staffing to help with the distribution.”
I would arrive to work at 8:00 am and the reception area would be filled with people.
Being Christian was not a prerequisite for receiving help, and many victims who applied were not members of Redeemer. “We helped absolutely everyone we could,” Metroka said. “There were no restrictions.”
Redeemer eventually distributed more than $2 million in unsolicited funds donated from individuals and churches across the country.
Visit to Redeemer
After my conversation with Michelle, I decided to approach Redeemer with our exorbitant vet bill. However, the prospect of asking for money filled me with anxiety. I had never asked anyone for money before. I also didn’t want to share too many personal details and relive the trauma in front of complete strangers, so I planned on revealing only the minimum information required.
I filled out a general application, then met with Metroka and the director of the fund, Andrea, in a private room. It turns out I had nothing to fear; their kindness and gentleness put me right at ease. They asked me to share what I was comfortable sharing and didn’t pressure me to divulge anything. There was no proselytizing, no plug for Redeemer attendance, no sympathy overload for our situation, no mention of a compulsory follow-up to see what I had spent the money on.
In a dignified, understated manner, they quickly produced a check in the exact amount of our vet bill. We also accepted their offer of Christian counseling for our PTSD, which started us on the road to emotional recovery. But Redeemer’s biggest contribution was simply knowing that they cared about us.
“The aftermath of 9/11 set off a growth spurt for evangelicals in America’s largest city,” New York City pastor John Starke wrote in 2011. Various sources suggest a 20 percent to 40 percent increase in attendance.
Redeemer’s average attendance ballooned from 2,800 to about 3,800, leading them to add another church service.
“9/11 was pivotal to Redeemer’s growth,” Gyger said. “The fund reinforced the idea that Redeemer was a church that cared about a person holistically. When people heard that Redeemer was involved in restoration and social justice and offered hope, they responded by attending. We involved our whole church in this. For instance, our community groups prayed for those who came to Redeemer for help—using their initials for anonymity.”
New Yorkers took notice that Redeemer was attracting funds from around the world to distribute. Their reputation grew—this was a church that cared.
“The fund didn’t just hand out money,” Metroka said. “Everyone told us their story, and we bore witness to their pain. That was very important in helping people heal. It was a stressful time because the need was great and we struggled to keep up with the demand, but we had a responsibility and privilege to ensure the outpouring of generosity shown to Redeemer was reflected in our giving to the people sitting in front of us.”
The combination of Keller’s leadership and Redeemer’s commitment to 9/11 disaster relief caused a growth spurt that continued years after the attacks.
Joining the Church
Within a few weeks of receiving financial assistance, Brian and I ventured out to attend a service. We didn’t feel obligated to attend Redeemer, we just felt a connection to the church as a result of their sympathy and generosity.
We loved the atmosphere of the service—the music, the people, and the message Pastor Keller delivered. We returned each Sunday, eventually making friends, joining Bible study groups, engaging in church activities, and volunteering with outreach programs. We even signed up for a mission trip to Peru in 2003 and witnessed how God moved and spoke in other cultures.
All of this led us into a deeper relationship with Christ. Eventually, Brian came on staff at Redeemer as the chief financial officer, and I became director of their short-term missions ministry. That role brought me full circle, as I was given the opportunity to serve victims of injustice and to show compassion to those who were hurting, just as Redeemer did for us in the 9/11 aftermath.
In 2011, the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday, and Redeemer services featured recipients of the 9/11 fund. They stood in front of the congregation to reflect on how Redeemer’s assistance impacted them and their relationship with God. I was asked to give my testimony as well. Although it was challenging to deliver something so personal in front of several hundred people, I was thrilled I could finally thank the church that helped change our lives, and more importantly, deepened our relationship with Christ.
I will never forget the fear and uncertainty I felt in those harrowing moments in Battery Park when my husband and I said goodbye to each other. But now, as the 20-year anniversary marks two decades of living with Christ as our Lord and Savior, we look to the future in an uncertain world with confidence and peace.
I’m grateful to the church that offered us help at our lowest point and provided a nurturing environment where our relationship with Christ could grow. And I’m so thankful that the trials of life pale in comparison to the promises of God, who works all things for good for those who love him.