Local preacher, author, recounts post-9/11 experiences
Story by Chris Graham
Bob Johnson will never forget what he saw when he returned to his native New York for the first time following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It was overwhelming,” said Johnson, who made the trek to NYC after answering a call from the International Conference of Police Chaplains, of which he is a member.
The conference had asked for volunteers from among its membership to serve on the front lines of the cleanup at Ground Zero. Johnson arrived for the first of two stints serving as a volunteer chaplain on Nov. 11, two months to the day of the attacks that left 3,000 dead and a nation’s heart and soul wounded.
“You can’t imagine what it was like – you saw it on TV and in pictures, but when you saw it in person, it was just overwhelming, and very humbling. Here you have a site that is a graveyard, actually, for 3,000 people, those they could not find,” said Johnson, who resides in Waynesboro.
“You really felt an empty space, just an emptiness there, for what hate did to New York and this country. But I saw a lot of love after that,” said Johnson, who chronicled the love in a book, I Saw God in the Midst of Tragedy: A Chaplain’s Experience at Ground Zero.
Johnson is not a writer – “I don’t even like to read,” he said – but he felt compelled to share what he saw and felt on location at the scene of America’s tragedy.
“People asked me several times, What was going on down there in the pit area, and where was God in all this?” Johnson said. “Well, for me to think about those, and I felt very close to the fact of how God worked with me, but when they asked me, Where was He? – I realized that this was a very legitimate question, and even I asked that question to myself. But what I found is that I saw God not literally as you would say you saw God, but I saw it in people.
“I saw it in the fire and rescue and EMS and the volunteers and the workers and the Red Cross and the hundreds of people that just came. I saw them pulling together, united, working together. It didn’t matter who you were, what you were, how short you were, how tall you were, what color. It just pulled everybody together. It made us come together as a people,” Johnson said.
“I realized that God was working in people – as I see it. Caring, compassion – the very thing that makes up God – were in people that were doing their work. It was just overwhelming to watch,” Johnson said.
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Chris Graham is the executive editor of The New Dominion.