A Sacred Mission

“God will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people.” by Major Molly Shotzberger

In over nine months of service:
• 3.2 million meals were served
• 39,000 TSA officers, volunteers and staff provided assistance 
• 1 million volunteer hours were served
• $90 million was donated 

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Mark, happy birthday to you!”

These were the words that were on my mind as I awoke one Tuesday morning on September 11, 2001. Our youngest grandson was turning 18 and I couldn’t wait to call and sing to him—a family tradition. In that early morning hours of that Tuesday, how could I have possibly known or even imagined that this tradition would have to be delayed until much later in the day? Our country had come under a terrorist attack. Two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon. Due to the brave efforts of the passengers and flight crew to regain control, a fourth plane heading towards Washington DC was forced to crash into a field near Shanksville, PA. Hours later, when I finally made the call, tears filled my eyes because our special day of celebration had turned into to a day of dreadful and unbelievable sadness for our nation. My heart broke for the passengers and crew whose lives were so brutally taken and for the families who were grieving. It also broke for a nation that was mourning these deaths along with the deaths of the firefighters, police officers and emergency medical teams that ran into the towers and up the fire escapes trying to save lives.

After the tears came the joy—the joy in realizing that although America had been attacked, the American Spirit lived on. On that day, I witnessed flags appearing all around, candles lit and people gathering on street corners to pray, people rushing to donate blood and crowds gathering to sing patriotic songs. In the midst of it all, The Salvation Army rushed its forces into the debris to serve and meet human needs in Jesus’ name without discrimination.

Twenty years later, as I sit to write this article, gratitude fills my heart as I remember the ministry of The Salvation Army on that day and in the months to follow at the site that became known as Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA.  Because of my experience in emergency disaster work, the Greater New York Division (GNY) requested that I join their team—what an honor to work with such an amazing team.  

During the first two weeks after the attack, under the leadership of the Divisional Commander Lt. Colonel William LaMarr and his staff, led by Major Stephen Banfield, this team along with Salvation Army officers and staff from the greater New York area came together to live out “Compassion Under Fire”—the name given to the response effort. Craig H. Evans, then the Director of Public Information for GNY, described the effort in the following words: “Somehow, despite great obstacles, our divisional staff pulled together and mounted a response that seemed well beyond our human capabilities. It was, indeed, just that—beyond our human capabilities. We put the situation in the hands of an omnipotent God and the pieces came together. Amid the ugliest circumstances, we were reminded that we were a compassionate Army, ready to fight evil with good.” 

Through the sweat of our brows and our tears, the pieces came together. Many were the times we knelt in the rubble at Ground Zero to pray with our fellow first responders; we gently poured water over the firefighters’ bruised feet to remove the dust and grime. At the morgue, we stood to give a final salute to honor the remains of those who perished in the line of duty as the body bags were transferred from an ambulance to a medical gurney. We conducted prayer services at the request of the staff and other volunteers.  At Fresh Kills Landfill on Station Island (a forensic site), we suited up in the affectionately called “space suit” to deliver snacks to the hydration stations for those who were laboring to sort through the remains. We sat for long periods of time at the mass feeding site to listen to the men and women tell their stories of how they were affected by what they saw as they sorted through the rubble one last time. Wherever and whenever we were needed, we knew without a doubt, God’s presence hovered over us and we were engaged in a sacred mission.

Army personnel served meals and specialized services in one of the largest tents on site at Ground Zero (affectionately named “The Taj Mahal” by relief workers).

I’ll never forget one particular incident when I strongly sensed that the rubble I was standing on became sacred. It was during the first week when the fires were still burning in the rubble and the broken pipes were hot from the smoldering ruins. I was about halfway up on the “pile” (the term the rescue workers used to describe the tons of wreckage from the collapse of the Twin Towers) when we were passing cold water and snacks to the rescue workers. I was easily identified by my Salvation Army chaplain’s jacket. A firefighter approached me and asked me to follow him. He cautioned me to stay close to him and to be careful of the hot debris. Carefully, we made our way further up the pile till we came to a place where there was an opening just large enough to crawl through. A hand reached out to help me to my feet. Standing before me in a semi-circle, firefighters hovered over the broken body of one of their own. I was asked to pray over the remains before they were placed in a body bag and removed to the morgue. I was then asked to lead the group in a procession to the waiting vehicle. In those solemn moments, as tears flowed freely, I thought of these words, “We are standing on holy ground.” Sadly, over a long period of time, Salvation Army officers and volunteers were called upon to pray over remains that had been found.

Expressions of care included providing relief for bruised feet, listening to stories about loss and trauma, leading police officers and firefighters in prayer for fallen comrades, and simply being someone to lean on and sharing a word of solace and understanding. Such acts reinforced values we share and that represent the best of the human spirit.

Sometimes the opportunity for ministry came through a most unusual way. Early on, our team formed our own bucket brigade on the pile of rubble alongside the professional rescue workers with their buckets. Our buckets contained ice, Gatorade, water, candy bars and by special request, bubble gum. Every day a man would ask, “Do you have any french fries?” The answer was always, “Sorry, not today.“ This went on for about a week. One day, when asked about the french fries, I told the man to meet me at our tent when he finished his shift. I promised I would have his order ready. Every day for about a week, ”Buddy,” as he became known, would come by for his fries. He talked, I listened. I learned his brother was missing and he came every day to search for him. One day Buddy didn’t come by. I wondered what happened to him, but then I got busy taking care of the others who needed me.

A few days later, a rescue worker came toward me yelling, “Chaplain, we need you.” I followed him till I saw a figure sitting on the ground staring into space. As I got closer, I recognized Buddy. Shouting over my shoulder “I’ll be right back,” I ran off to return with two bags of french fries. When I sat on the ground beside Buddy and handed him his bag of fries, he began to sob. The remains of his brother had just been found. We sat silently for a long time, then he took my hand and simply said “Thanks.” By now, the fries had become soggy from our tears, but those little pieces of fried potatoes ministered to Buddy in a way no words could have. We hugged and I prayed. He went home; I went back to the pit.

This year on September 11, 2021, I will call my grandson and carry on the family tradition. I will also pause to remember all the men and women who died on 9/11/2001. Most importantly, I will say a prayer for the multitude who served during this national disaster. I am encouraged that in Hebrews 6:10, the scripture reminds us: “God will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people.” Amen. 

Major Shotzberger worked in emotional and spiritual care and critical incident stress management at Ground Zero and numerous disaster relief operations as an active Salvation Army officer. Her officer career included appointments in the Army’s Eastern Territory ranging from Social Services Manager to Pastoral Care Counselor and Trainer in Crisis, Trauma, and Grief Counseling. Her many awards, certifications and education include earning a Master’s in Leadership & Ministry from Greenville College in Illinois.

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