It was before just before 6 a.m. in California when the first hijacked plane crashed into New York on September 11. Chaplain Ray Guinta was on his way to an early meeting when he heard the news. He felt he needed to be in New York.

Guinta is co-founder and chaplain of We Care Ministries, a non-profit organization providing counseling and assistance to victims of trauma since 1987. On September 11, Guinta and his We Care partner immediately discussed going to Ground Zero. But their policy was to be invited by an institution or group. "If God wanted us to go, we'd go," he says. "Something would open up."

A few days later, Guinta's bags were packed in case that call came. When it did, it was from a Manhattan church swamped with needs. Beginning on September 17, Guinta and fellow chaplains worked beside rescue workers for 68 days at the World Trade Center site. He chronicles his work there in his new book, God @ Ground Zero (Integrity). In the following excerpt, Guinta writes about the emotions and anguish present in the wreckage of the towers.


We found nothing my first night, no one. Dead or alive. It would be the same story for days. The futility was taking its toll. As one of the multiple-ton cranes was being repositioned, a dozen of us took a break. One of my chaplain team members, a man named Ryan, was standing beside a firefighter who had a faraway, detached look. I heard Ryan ask him how he was coping. Barely changing expression, the firefighter mentioned he had lost forty friends on September 11. Not colleagues, not acquaintances—friends.

"Your family must have been so happy to see you," Ryan responded.

A cloud passed over the firefighter's face. He had gone home to a big celebration, he answered, complete with a homemade banner created by his family. It had said in big red letters: "We are proud of you, Dad. You're our hero!" But he hadn't been able to handle it; he hadn't even let his wife hug him.

Ryan frowned. "Why?"

"I don't feel like a hero," he mumbled. "I didn't die."

Ryan shook his head. "But don't you see? We know you would have died-that you would have sacrificed yourself just as your friends did. That's why your family, all of us, know in our minds and hearts what you would have done for us."

That seemed to stir something in the firefighter; the faraway look vanished.

"Have you talked to your kids about this?" Ryan coaxed.

He shrugged. "My son keeps asking, but I can't talk about it. I just have to leave the room," the firefighter answered, chin out. "I have to be strong for him."

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"But you have to talk to him."

"I can't—I have to be strong for him."

"What does being strong have to do with not talking to him?" Ryan finally asked.

"If I talk about it, I'll break down," he admitted. "And I've got to be strong in front of him. I can't let him see me cry"

"Who in the world told you that?"

The firefighter stared at the chaplain. "Are you saying … that it's okay for him to see me cry?"

"It's not just okay, it's essential. He needs to see his dad cry over this. He needs to learn from you how to grieve—that sometimes you've got to be strong enough to weep."

As if he had been given permission, the firefighter's eyes filled, and the tears spilled down his face. Then, from deep inside came a sob followed by another and yet another, his shoulders heaving as they continued coming. Ryan put a hand on his shoulder to comfort him, and the firefighter collapsed into his arms. Now the chaplain was weeping as well, and so were we all. Everyone. We were all hiding it, but we were all crying. It was a powerful, intimate scene, one that spoke of the experience like no other could.

This is what it is like for emergency service workers—the firefighters, the police officers, and the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who give all they have to disaster work. It is also what it is like for a crisis chaplain. During disaster work, there is always one hallowed moment that gives the chaplain a special sense of why he or she is there. If the journey is made for no other reason than to meet that person and that need, the trip would be worthwhile. This was such a moment for my team member. This was Ryan's "win."

How do you do it? people ask. My question is, How does anyone do it?

My goal as a crisis chaplain had always been to show the compassionate side of God in crisis, to be a tangible reminder of personal, loving God—to light a match in the midst of darkness. Really, it seems a paradox. A place created by so much evil is the last place most people think a God of love would be. It's certainly the last place most people would want to be. But where else should we be?

From those first moments inside the ground zero site, I knew the only way the rage and horror would not overpower any good could do was to consciously keep my focus on an eternal perspective. Working on the pile, I already sensed, would be overwhelming. Digging through sixteen acres of utter destruction all but represented futility. If we as a nation didn't respond, though, it would be as if we were saying we accept evil and nothing can be done about it.

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But there was also something else that kept the futility at bay for me. In addition to the dignity of life provided by my helping to recover the victims, I believed I was part of a bigger story being told by a Creator who deals in restoration, a story that started with the story of Christ, God's greatest redemption story. God never changes; in times of crisis, God waits to work through the losses in our lives. I believed that this story, begun on a beautiful September morning, was a tragedy—but a tragedy from which God wanted to redeem every part. I'm fairly certain of my heart's condition without the Christ story's effect on my own life; I know I would not have been standing in ground zero. I'd have been busy chasing my own goals, which would never have included helping people at a disaster site. But I have been so moved by the love and grace I've seen in my own life that the feeling propels me into trauma situations in hopes of helping others feel the same comfort. It's a powerful, powerful thing. And it is nothing but a humbling privilege to be a possible part of the redemption story in another person's heart. I cannot speak for others' reasons for why or how they do it, but that is mine.

Yet for the first few days at ground zero, I must confess that my efforts to fend off the anguish pouring from the atrocity surrounding me would be a struggle. So, purposely, from that first night, I resolved not to look at the rubble. I would force myself to look at the faces, to focus on seeing life, not death. And when I did look at the ruins, I would look for God in it—and, remarkably enough, the rubble itself did just that for many of the workers during the earliest days.

There was a place the workers called "God's House" within one of the caved-in buildings of ground zero. Inside what was left of the U.S. Customs building was a small miracle that everyone held on to during those first few weeks. A construction worker had stumbled onto it. A part of the north tower, Tower One, had fallen through the roof of the Customs building, creating a crater-sized hole all the way into the sublevels. Spray-painted arrows led inside, winding in and around the ruins; the floors above and below were compromised, and the surrounding din was loud, loud, loud—deafening to the point of pain. But with a step inside this interior area, its roof open to the sky, nothing but an unearthly quiet was heard. And there, rising from the despair, were three broken girders standing against the twisted, crushed wreckage of the building's offices. And they were, all three, broken off in the shape of crosses—distinct and heartbreaking.

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Could I explain such a thing away? Of course. Should I? The workers answered those questions by naming the place and by returning to it, en masse, to reflect, to weep, and to pray despite the apparent danger. And I know why. Words almost fail me when I say this—but upon my first visit, standing there, looking down on those broken crosses, the rage subsided for a moment, and I felt a tremendous peace, the kind one describes as God's presence. Simply, quietly, in that still place, in the twisted structure, I was given a simple hiatus from rage—a reminder of sorts: I'm still here, I'm still in this place. Look at these things.

After that experience, even when the rage would wash over me, whenever I gazed past the people to the pile, I saw something new. Something about the skeletal girders still standing reminded me of the images I'd seen of ancient cathedrals standing broken but resolute during the world wars. The smoke, the play of light on the wreckage of steel pillars, the great, massive shadows cast, all spoke of some profound survival. And I didn't see broken beams anymore. I saw how the girders' joints created crosses wherever I needed to look.