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When psychologist Diane Langberg arrived at Ground Zero a few weeks after 9/11, the ground was still hot to walk on, and she quickly learned she was breathing in glass fragments. "We were invited by a chaplain there to come and listen to survivors and talk with workers in the pit for the night," she said, "and I spent the night walking with a female volunteer chaplain who had been there since the beginning." She would continue to serve as a counselor to many who survived the attacks, and to many who did search-and-rescue among the remains of those who did not.
Several of us gathered on a Monday morning and were taken by police escort to Ground Zero. We had permission from the mayor's office to walk behind the barricades and around the perimeter of the rubble of the World Trade Center towers. The stench hit you in the face exiting the van, and a sea of gray ash rose up with twisted metal shapes protruding from the rubble. On one edge of the rubble stands a little church known as St. Paul's Chapel. It was built in the 1700s and has survived many wars. It also emerged intact on Sept. 11. The chapel is surrounded by a beautiful wrought iron fence. As we approached the property my eye caught a computer-generated sign taped to the fence, reading, "Foot Care Inside." A church offering foot care? How like our Lord who "having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love. . . . He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples' feet" (John 13: 1, 5).
Another sign nearby read, "Holy Eucharist, noon today." Foot care and communion! What a picture of the church, bringing acts of mercy in a devastated place.
At 11 p.m. I went into the pit, as the workers call it. I was given a hard hat, a black jacket with "chaplain" written on the back, a respirator mask, and an identification card. I spent the night in the pit with a young woman who had been spending every night during the graveyard shift walking among the men and women, listening to them, encouraging them, and praying for them.
The stench was more powerful than earlier and the fine gray ash lodged in your throat. Cranes loomed large and the rescue workers seemed small. We walked into a group of firemen who were staring off into space, silent. They had just found one of their own-again-and were trying to absorb the shock of it all and manage the grief. Eventually the cranes returned to their digging and the workers sat around in the rubble, talking in small groups or sitting alone and staring. They wore overalls and carried small rakes or shovels. One fireman asked me, "How do you grieve 30 buddies?" An iron welder told me of some grotesque and horrible memories he had that constantly interrupted his sleep. He said that many of the workers were drinking heavily to chase away the memories. Tears running down his face, he took my hand and asked, "Please tell me, what do I do with the memories?"
Throughout the night, whenever the cranes stopped, the workers picked up their rakes, shovels, and buckets and went to the area to dig and rake, looking for signs of humanity. We went with them and stood by while they dug, praying for them. About 3 a.m. I realized a group of them were gathering together and raking. "They must have found something," the young chaplain said.
I was overcome with grief. Death was everywhere, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I looked up and saw a piece of the façade of the World Trade Center rising from the rubble. At the end of it the beams formed three crosses, brilliantly lit by the powerful spotlights. I put my arm around the woman I was with and said, "Look, He is here."
The rescue workers had come to a scene of ruin and entered into what they found. Day after day they worked in the place of death, sifting through the rubble, looking for people. Their task was backbreaking, grim, and dangerous. The work they do will mark them for the rest of their lives. It will haunt their sleep and has changed the way they think about everything. There was no quick success in the ruins, no material gain, and no easy gratification. At the same time, the rescue workers would never think of making a permanent home in the ruins. The rubble is not their home, nor is this world ours. But we have been invited into the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ and called into the places of darkness and death, for that is where He went. He has called us to serve Him in the dark place of death, moving among those who are dead in their trespasses and sins, calling them to life and light.
-Diane Langberg is a psychologist, author, and faculty member of Westminster Theological Seminary. She chairs the Executive Board of the American Association of Christian Counselors.