By Rev. Dr. Tom Tewell
I’ll never forget it. Being a pastor in New York City on September 11, 2001 is seared in my mind. When the planes hit the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, chaos reigned in New York. The staff of our church tried desperately to reach our members who worked in those towers. Our Director of Facilities came into our pastoral staff meeting and told us that there were 100 people sitting in our sanctuary. “What are they doing down there,” I asked. “They’re just sitting there, they are numb.” Our staff, had been thinking about a 7:00 p.m. prayer service that night, but we realized that we couldn’t wait until seven o’clock. We grabbed our robes and Bibles and headed for our sanctuary. I tried to figure out what I might read to bring a word of comfort to a city in shock. We opened the doors onto Fifth Avenue and put up a sign that said: “Prayer Service one o’clock.” I’ll never forget walking out onto Fifth Avenue. People I didn’t know came up to me, because I was wearing a robe. Some were covered with soot and ash. They hugged me, sobbed and told me their story.
One man approached me, whose white shirt was covered with blood. I said: “Sir, have you been cut?” He said, “No” and then he broke down, in tears; he had to choke the story out. He was late for work and when he arrived, he paid the cab driver and saw the tower in which he worked, covered with flames. An inferno. He watched people jumping out of windows… “I guess this is their blood,” he said, choking back the tears. I said, “Sir, would you like to come inside? We’re going to have a prayer service in a few minutes. He said, “I would love to come in.” He leaned on me; I can still feel the heaviness of his weight as he leaned on me walking up the steps.
As we started the service, I opened the Bible to Psalm 46 and read: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We sang the hymn: Our God Our Help In Ages Past, Our Hope For Years to Come, Our Shelter From the Stormy Blast, and Our Eternal Home. After the service the man with the blood on his shirt, came up to me almost breathless. He said, “I wrote down those words you said at the beginning of the service: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. That is good stuff. Where did you get that? Is that Tennyson? Is it Keats? Shelley? Where did you get that?” I said, “Sir, It’s Psalm 46, it’s in the Bible.” He said, “I never read the Bible. I don’t even have a Bible.” I handed him one of our pew bibles. He said, “What should I be reading?”
I must tell you that September 9, 2001 was our Homecoming Sunday at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. We gave away Bible bookmarks that Sunday that listed 50 of the most important passages in the entire Bible. I told the congregation that these passages would be a resource for them in daily living. We had over 2,000 people in church that day and I wondered why our Communications Director ordered 5,000 bookmarks! We had almost 3,000 bookmarks left over! I asked him on September 9, 2001, “Bob why did you order so many bookmarks?” He said, “I think we’re going to need them. People will want to send them to their grandmother or their kids in college.” He predicted that we would give away those bookmarks within the next few months. Little did he know his words would be prophetic. So when the man asked, “What should I be reading in the Bible?” I said, “Sir would you like one of our Bible bookmarks?” We gave away all the rest of the 5,000 by the next Sunday. We ordered 5,000 more and 5,000 more, and we gave away over 15,000 bookmarks in the next few weeks!