Rev. Dr. Willard Ashley: Counseling the Survivors
by Rob Kerby
Dr. Willard Ashley should have been inside the World Trade Center on September 11. He was an executive coach for several firms in the towers and on any other Tuesday would have been leading sessions with top management.
“Normally my Tuesday ritual was to go to the Krispy Kreme, then make my World Trade Center stop,” he remembers. “However, I had a doctor’s appointment in Teaneck, N.J.”
Dr. Ashley is the pastor of Abundant Joy Church and at the time was a staff psychotherapist at the Riverside Church New York City. He teaches at New Brunswick Theological Seminary and emerged as the face of disaster spiritual care in New York City, helping pastors care for themselves after September 11.
Driving to the doctor, “I was listening to the radio,” he remembers, “and I hear some little plane must have run into one of the towers. I thought, what else could it be? I was prepared to make a little joke when I got to the doctor.
“Then as I listened more, I realized it was intentional. I pulled up into the parking lot, wondering if anybody at the doctor’s office was aware what had happened. I was sure some of them had family working there.
“So, I shifted from anxious patient on his way to see the doctor to pastor and counselor. I walked in and they hadn’t heard. I remembered offering to come back, rescheduling – but we went ahead with my exam.
“Then it took me two hours to get back to Manhattan – what is normally a 20-minute drive – due to the traffic that was coming out. I could see something was terribly wrong.
“Because I live in three different world, all three were spinning. I am a pastor in Jersey City. They were getting boats and barges of people coming over to the hospitals. Our mayor was literally at the dock. One phone call was 'We need you to get down here to help out' – as a pastor and a psycho-therapist. We had children in school who, out their window, actually saw everything as it was unfolding.
“I was also a psychotherapist at Riverside Church. They were worried that they would be a target. Many of the clergy I talked to told of their sanctuaries being packed. The doors were open and people came in. So, I got calls to come to Riverside.
“Third, because I was doing executive coaching on Wall Street – I was asked to talk to the executives of some of the Fortune 100 companies. I felt the pull to go there. It was very good that I did, because I was hearing people who were saying things that were just not good. Companies that didn’t understand that good employees had been through terrible things, such as getting out of the Trade Center, but as they were running from the building, hearing thuds. They didn’t want to turn around, because they knew what it was – bodies of people who had jumped.
“I had company execs asking ‘Can’t you write prescriptions?’ for people dealing with the most horrific experience of their lives. Well, no – you need people to be processing this, not being medicated. So then I figured I really needed to talk to management about reality checks – to understand what their employees had just gone through. I agreed to talk to employees one-on-one, but I really needed to talk to management about reality.The chaos that followed the attacks was traumatic.
“They had people that they had rushed to Secaucus to keep company operations going. Nobody knew what was coming next – so, they had to ensure continuity, but the phones weren’t working. There had been no way to get a message out [to their families]...These executives [had devoted] themselves to keeping the firm functioning, [but when they] showed up at home two days later, their families were hysterical, thinking they had been killed. The explanation that 'they’d been working' was just too much. Within days, some had their wives handing them divorce papers...These executives couldn't understand [it].”
As a counselor, Dr. Ashley also found himself dealing with people asking how such a terrible thing could happen. “I had people who were saying it was us against them. I was saying, ‘That’s interesting, because there were people killed from all faiths.'"
Why does Dr. Ashley believe God allowed the attacks to occur and for so many people to die? “For me theologically, there is evil in the world and on some days, evil gets the upper hand,” he says. “We now have to regroup, get together and work this out. For me, 9/11 was evil having its day.”
You can read more about Dr. Rev. Willard Ashley and his story in Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal After 9-11.
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