2016-06-30
Last month, I thought I knew my neighbors. We'd wave at each other as we drove by, chat in the supermarket, and have cookie swaps at Christmas. Nice folks.

I also thought I knew New Yorkers. I lived in the city for twenty years before I moved to the suburbs, and I still go in to work on 23rd Street when I'm not telecommuting from home. New Yorkers are gruff, straight-talking people who are nicer than reputation leads you to believe, but always in a hurry.

Then came Tuesday, September 11th, and I found out I didn't know New Yorkers--or my neighbors--at all. Maybe you discovered the same thing.

That morning, I drove my six-year-old son Jonathan to school in our bucolic New York exurb of Warwick, New York. When I returned to my home office at 9:19 to start my Beliefnet day, there were two phone messages from my husband, Robert Scott, who edits a magazine based one block from the World Trade Center. The first said, "There's been a big explosion. Someone says a small plane hit the Trade Center." The second said, "Hey, there's been another explosion." I called him back, then turned on the television. As I watched, the first trade tower imploded. And then my husband was gone. He could not be reached by landline or cell phone. As it had for countless thousands of others, my long day of waiting had begun.

Thankfully, my husband's journey would take him through "nuclear winter" into the open arms of help and kindness.

Joyce Baldassarri lives in Staten Island, New York, just across the harbor from the southern tip of Manhattan--in full view of the World Trade Centers. As soon as the magnitude of the tragedy became clear, Joyce rushed to the local police department to see what she could do to help, but they were in high alert themselves and had no time to coordinate civilian efforts. So Joyce took matters into her own hands.

She realized that thousands of people who work in lower Manhattan south of the World Trade Center had to be evacuated through a landscape now devoid of oxygen, filled instead with gas fumes and smoke--and covered in darkness and inches of ash. They could not be moved north; there was no way to get past the disaster site. There was only one other way out--to the south, on board the ferry to Staten Island. And so they began arriving, hundreds of men and women who were escaping with their lives but not much else. Jackets, purses, briefcases had been left in offices quickly abandoned.Joyce swung into action. She had three phone lines in her house; she lined them up against one wall in her attractive Victorian-era house. She called her friends in Staten Island, and the local pizzeria and asked them to bring food. Then she sent these same friends out to scour the waterfront, looking for people who didn't know where to go.

Before long, they began arriving. Shell-shocked and weary, they found themselves in a warm, pleasant home. Joyce herself signed them in when they arrived, took their contact numbers so that they could be found once they left her house. She handed them her phone number so they could give loved ones a contact number. Then she pointed them to the landlines to home. Once they were finished, they were directed to her upstairs terrace for food and breathing space. Several people needed to take showers and were given a change of clothes, including one woman who had fled the WTC Marriott in pajamas and no shoes. Scores of people found sanctuary in Joyce's home that day. My husband Bob was one of them. I saw God in Joyce's selfless giving.

I also didn't know the determination lurking in Kay Wild, the wife of my husband's colleague Peter. When we finally located our husbands and their co-workers on Staten Island, radio and television reported that traffic was a tangled mess all around Manhattan. All the bridges and tunnels were closed. No one could get close to New York City by car; no one would be leaving Staten Island at all that day.

None of this mattered to Kay. She got in her car in Connecticut and drove south, determined to rescue Peter and Bob and their colleague Linda. She parked on the opposite side of a closed bridge to Staten Island and waited--and waited--until our husbands convinced a taxi to drive them to the bridge, and emergency workers to drive them across. Bob was home by 9 that night. I saw God in Kay's love and determination.

My neighbor Cliff Thomson retired as a New York City firefighter two weeks before the tragedy. Thank heavens! I thought. He's out of harm's way. But not Cliff. He immediately headed in to ground zero in Manhattan, and has been pulling shifts ever since. The on-duty firefighters working there are getting paid time and a half as overtime for the horrible, dangerous, life-shattering work they're doing. Cliff is being paid nothing. I see God in his selflessness.

My friend Beth Quinn, a local writer who has contributed often to Beliefnet, wrote a wonderful and ferocious article, the front page of today's local paper, about a Warwick neighbor I didn't know, Linda Gronlund. Linda was on Flight 93 last week, and she was one of the triangle of passengers who determined to thwart the hijackers, even if it meant paying with her life. Beth's article is stunning in its clarity and emotion, as Linda Gronlund's actions were stunning in their heroism. Beth, who describes herself as "a cheerful agnostic" would kill me for saying this, but I see God as clearly in her outrage and defiance of evil as I see him in Linda's ultimate sacrifice.


Yesterday, Dorothy Randall called me from her Army post at the World Trade Center. I met Dorothy when she was a gangly, grinning 9-year-old who was assigned to me as a "little sister" by the Big Brother/Big Sisters of New York. I have watched her blossom into a lovely young woman, a single mother (bereaved by a drunk driver), who has done a masterful job of raising her son in the projects of Queens. She called on break because she is an Army Reservest who has been called onto active duty to protect those clearing debris at the disaster site. "I can see the bodies," she said, "but thank God I don't have to deal with them." She called to make sure we were all right and say she loved us. There is no doubt in my mind who has benefitted most from our relationship. I see God daily in Dottie's perserverence and love.

This disaster has shown me depths of ordinary people I never knew were there before--in many, many different ways. Not everyone can go to help at the World Trade Center. But I'll bet there's a reaching out, a wanting to help others, in your neighborhood that perhaps wasn't as evident a week ago.

My son Jonathan discovered this week that local farmworkers were going to bed without blankets as the nights here dipped down below forty degrees. He began a drive to collect blankets. My four-year-old daughter Linnéa has insisted on accompanying him as he makes the rounds, handing out flyers. I see God in their innocent compassion. I also see him in the Muslim store manager who said, "If these blankets are for the poor, I want to help, too," and did. I see him in the girls in our neighborhood who were gathering bouquets of wildflowers to sell today, and when I said we were walking distributing flyers but not carrying money, they conferred and shyly returned to present us each with bouquets and to ask if they could help us distribute flyers to gather blankets. Would they have done so a week ago? Perhaps. But they certainly did it today.

I saw God in the friends and relatives from many countries who called to make sure we were okay, and the friends from church who kept calling even though they knew Bob was safe.

My mother-in-law, Dorothy Scott, lost her fifteen-year-old daughter in a terrible accident at a school picnic nearly fifty years ago. She has never forgotten the pain of that day, and the thought that she had also just violently lost her son, my husband, left her emotionally shattered, but with her strong and valiant faith showing through "in all the broken places." I saw God clearly in the depth of her love and the keenness of her pain.

My colleagues at Beliefnet certainly do not expect me to say this, but they came into our Manhattan offices that Tuesday when no one knew if it was safe, and every day thereafter, and stayed into the wee hours because they were determined to provide our users with a place of solace and community at a time of urgent need. This was not an easy task, as our server was located down by the Trade Towers, and is out for the foreseeable future.

Let me finally tell you about my across-the-street neighbor, James Shanahan. James is an obstetrician. Early Wednesday morning, September 12, he delivered a baby to a mother who has a six-year-old son, whom James also delivered. The little boy has an inoperable brain tumor. The father is a New York City police officer who came to witness the birth on his break from disaster duty at the Trade Center. The baby was a planned Cesarean, and as the team worked, James and the parents discussed the tragic events, and how different the world was that they were bringing this child into than it had been even the day before. Their hearts were heavy, their discussion subdued.

And then the baby was born. It is a little girl. And the parents, who were facing the worst that this world has to offer, held her tight and welcomed her and surrounded her with love. God was there. And the world went on.
more from beliefnet and our partners