Counseling people in crisis has been my life since I finished Bible college in 1987. I was there after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. I've helped students who have survived school shootings. I was on the scene at Oklahoma City in 1995. But nothing could have prepared me for what I'd find in New York City in the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Shaken by the specter of death and destruction on an unimaginable scale, I had to wonder if one man could really make a difference in the face of so much suffering. Could any of us?
I was up early on the West Coast that day, on my way to a 6:00 A.M. meeting in Sacramento, when I heard something on the car radio about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. It took a morning of rumors, sound bites and television images to clarify what was actually happening on the East Coast. We feared the worst as rush hour came to a head at 9:00 A.M. California time-some of the hijacked planes were still unaccounted for. But the targets that day turned out to be confined to the East Coast. Physical targets, that is. Every American had been hit emotionally.
I wanted to get to New York immediately. But I'd trained myself to wait for an invitation from some group. Disaster sites are always chaotic, and help-even professional help-has to be organized if it is to be effective. I also believe that God directs me through these invitations to the places where I can do the most good.
I packed my bags so I'd be ready. "Meeting in the kitchen," I called to my family. My wife, daughters and son crowded around the table. "I might have to go away again for a while, but I don't want you to be scared." I looked at Katie, my younger daughter, sitting across from me, and leaned in toward her. "Remember, what can you count on?"
"That you'll be back as soon as your job's done," she said with confidence.
"That's right. I'll be back soon."
I always made a point of saying that. A seven-year-old should know for sure she can count on her parents. That was not the case in the house where I was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1960. My truck driver father drank up his pay instead of feeding and clothing his wife and nine children. My mother had problems of her own. Dad eventually went to prison for failing to support us. By that time we were living hand-to-mouth on welfare. One day Mom just walked out the door, supposedly to get a loaf of bread.
Hours passed. No bread. No Mom.
We stopped being a family that day. My brothers and sisters were sent to foster homes. I was hospitalized, near death from malnutrition and infection. Dad died a few years later of cirrhosis of the liver. We never knew what happened to Mom. I was adopted by the Giuntas, the only family I knew until I was 27.
That was when my wife got pregnant the first time. Her doctor encouraged us to find out everything we could about my family medical history. At the time I was a criminal investigator for the state of California. I could have laid my hands on the information a hundred different ways. But I'd had my reservations about learning the truth. "It's for our child," my wife encouraged me.
A 1960 Trenton, New Jersey, phone book showed three listings for Lanigan, the name of my birth parents. One of them was my uncle. One call led to another, and on Easter Sunday 1986, the nine of us were reunited. The older siblings talked about the fear, the heartbreak, the confusion of being abandoned by our parents and separated.
To me, it was nothing short of a miracle that now, here we were, all of us together. "Everybody get in close for a picture," my oldest sister said, taking charge again all these years later. God has restored a family broken beyond hope, I thought. For the first time I truly felt the depth of God's love and all its powerful possibilities. I wanted to help other people see that power in their own lives. I quit my detective job and became a pastoral counselor. I wanted to be where people's needs were immediate and raw.