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September 29, 2001
Column #1048

THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

     NEW YORK - Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, began his remarks with Charles Dickens' opening words of ''The Tale of Two Cities:''

     ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. It was the winter of despair, it was the spring of hope.''

     Speaking at a breakfast sponsored by Concerts of Prayer, an alliance of 1700 churches across metropolitan New York and by World Vision, the world's largest Christian relief organization serving 80 million people in need, Stearns said, ''We have truly seen the worst of humanity. But in its aftermath, we have seen humanity's best.''

     He asked ''What was it about this tragedy that was so devastating?'' In loss of life, as horrific it was that over 6,000 died, it was less than the 10,000 who died in Hurricane Mitch. ''There is something more profound. The difference is spiritual in nature. This was an act of unimaginable hatred and unspeakable evil. This evil caused a wound that is spiritual and deep and painful, a wound that has touched our souls.'' 

     On the other hand, ''We have witnessed amazing heroism, an unprecedented outpouring of charity that may total $1 billion for this tragedy, a solidarity and patriotism this nation has not seen since World War II. We have seen people flocking to church, synagogue and mosque to pray and seek answers. A spiritual wound can only be healed with a spiritual cure. It was the best of times and worst of times.''

     McKenzie Pier, President of Concerts of Prayer, said the tragedy ''has awakened the church to be the church, to mobilize, to work together and pray together.'' He introduced and led prayers for two pastors from churches only blocks away from Ground Zero who were the first to rush to the scene of the tragedy.

     Pastor Marcos Rivera of Primitive Christian Church said his whole ministry has changed. The government asked his church to coordinate clergy access to the Ground Zero site, to Pier 94 where families were identifying remains, and to provide grief counseling. He was also dispensing food and supplies to the relief workers. ''We have been raising money to help fund transitions. There are no jobs. Companies are gone. We are preparing to help pay rent.'' Forty pastors across denominational lines created a Ground Zero Relief Fund (c/o Primitive Christian Church, 207-209 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002) to which World Vision has contributed computers, FAXes, and an office so that all donations go to victims. 

     Pastor Rick Del Rio of Abounding Grace Church, was in midtown when the planes hit the World Trade Center. For a while, in stunned disbelief, he was glued to the tragedy on TV and then realized, ''What am I doing here? I should be down there.'' He raced downtown on his motorcycle, dropped by the church, put on his boots, jeans and a Roman collar that as a Protestant, he rarely wore. Had he gotten to the site sooner, he would have been crushed when the towers collapsed.

     He recalls, ''I could not believe my eyes - the collapse of the buildings, inches of ash and documents of people's lives across the ground. A police officer rushed up, `Father, there are body parts. Can you do Last Rites?''' He then helped the officer clean a van full of ash, ripped out a seat, and took bodies over to a temporary morgue. ''Emergency vehicles were exploding with flash fires. Hundreds of vehicles were destroyed. It was a war zone.''

     ''This was not a time to preach but a time to be encouraging, to pray, to let the workers know you are there,'' he said. A TV crew saw him the next morning, when he wondered aloud why there was only one other pastor in the area, Marcos Rivera. That unleashed a flood of clergy to Ground Zero. They are being trained in grief counseling at Abounding Grace. Clergy are now dealing with grieving spouses and 15,000 children who lost a parent. Del Rio reflected, ''My faith in God has never been stronger. What has grown immensely is my faith in people.''

     At the national level, clergy are urging a response targeted at the terrorists. An editorial in the Catholic magazine ''America'' concludes ''Killing thousands of Afghan civilians would be a sacrilegious memorial to those killed in the United States. The terrorists should be brought to justice because of their crimes and because of the danger they pose.'' However, military force should be limited to rally even the Islamic world ''in a concerted effort to root out terrorism.''

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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