A gift of presence
December 14 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

A gift of presence | Friday, Dec. 14, 2001

Friday, Dec. 14, 2001

A gift of presence

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor NEW YORK CITY - The trucks line up on West Street - the big trucks - the long-bed dump trucks that carry away the steel beams, water pipes, elevator cables, concrete chunks and compressed remains of the World Trade Center and its occupants.
An American flag flies near two steel beams forming a cross at the site of the terrorist attacks in New York City.
The trucks line up to be washed so no ash or debris clings to the tires or blows into the streets. A torch-wielding welder clambers over the load, cutting away extraneous bits that might protrude from the tightly drawn cover. Every truck is registered when it leaves and signed in when it delivers its cargo to a nearby landfill for closer examination, and ultimately for recycling or disposal.

The city of New York is not only working hard to clean up the devastating pile of rubble left at "Ground Zero" after the unforgettable terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but laboring as well to keep it under wraps, out of the public view, antiseptic.

The city regards the ruinous expanse as a memorial site - in a sense, as an open grave. Thousands of people died there, but identifiable remains from only a few hundred persons have been recovered. The dust and ash that blanketed the area following the fiery conflagration and final fall of the towers is not unlike what emerges from a crematorium.

New Yorkers want the site to be cleaned, contained, compartmentalized. The thousands of residents who lived in nearby apartments want the same thing. They want their apartments cleaned and made livable, but sometimes they lack the physical, fiscal or emotional resources to do the job alone.

That's where Baptists come in. More than a thousand volunteers from around the country have traveled to the city at their own expense, settled into a makeshift camp at the Navy Shipyard in Brooklyn, and given a week's worth of elbow grease and listening hearts to the people of lower Manhattan.

On the scene Removing layers of dust is just one aspect of the cleaning effort - volunteers also enable some residents to vent their feelings and experience emotional cleansing through sharing their pain.

"Part of our challenge is to be debriefers for the tenants," said Beddie Tarlton, who coordinated North Carolina's recovery efforts. "We want to see if we can help them to talk about it, to release any anxiety they may have."

Volunteers were instructed not to pry, Tarlton said, or to press tenants to say more than they wanted to say. But people who have undergone trauma often find it easier to talk to complete strangers than to family or friends, she said. "Our first priority is to listen. Cleaning comes second."

Mike Mullin, a retired Marine from Brookwood Baptist Church in Jacksonville, recalled a man whose apartment "looked like you had poured out two dumpster loads of trash and turned on a fan." Mullin, completing his third trip to New York since Sept. 11, said the man had been living in the apartment, but wearing a respirator full time, even in his sleep.

The team spent two full days cleaning his apartment and listening to his concerns. By the end of the second day, Mullin said, the man had overcome his fear and given up wearing the respirator. Although he is Jewish, the resident was happy to receive a signed Bible and to pray together with the team, Mullin said.

Sharing the love of Christ with disaster victims is the main motivation for recovery work, Tarlton said, but volunteers "don't beat them over the head with it." Volunteers typically circle up and pray with a resident before beginning a job, she said, and leave a signed Bible when they go.

This core motivation leads the teams to help anyone who asks, even those who could afford to pay a cleaning service. "God wants us to witness to them as much as anybody else," Tarlton said. "They may need help more than anyone, because everybody expects them to pay for everything, so nobody ever gives them anything."

Dave Stanke, an independent systems consultant, is one of those people. His spacious apartment on Liberty Street is hardly a low-rent affair, but he was glad to have the help. When volunteers first arrived, he directed them to a neighbor he thought needed help more. Volunteers later moved on to the apartment where Stanke, his wife, and four young children have lived for the past three years. The family has stayed with friends and in two different rentals since the Sept. 11 attacks, waiting for utilities to be restored and blown-out windows to be repaired so the apartment could be made habitable again.

"I think this is the greatest thing," he said of the volunteer effort. "It's a very emotional, stressful time for the people who live here - it's tougher on the residents emotionally because it's their home, not just where they work."

Stanke's family was scattered around the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Some evacuated to Staten Island, others to New Jersey. They were not reunited until 6 p.m. on the following day.

The sense of connectedness since Sept. 11 has been a powerful thing, Stanke said. People from around the country have called, contributed to relief efforts and traveled to New York at their own expense to help. "People like you guys give you hope in humanity," he said.

Jim and Carol Hardee, of Inwood Baptist Church in Raleigh, were well received by the people they assisted in the Gateway apartment complex. "I've been impressed by the residents' appreciation, gratefulness and spirit of humility that someone would come this far to help them," Jim said. Carol said a casting director for ABC saw them on a shuttle bus and said, "We appreciate you so much because you're doing this for the right reasons."

And what would they say to someone who was thinking about volunteering for similar work?

"Do it," Jim said.

"Don't do it," Carol said - "unless you want to be blessed. By all means, don't pass it up."

Cam Parrish and Connie Yarbrough of Green Street Baptist Church in High Point were also impressed with the appreciative spirit of residents throughout the city, where the "yellow hats" are recognized as good folks who've come to do good work - for free.

"There's not a person we've seen who didn't thank us, including policemen and firemen," Parrish said. "We sat in front of our TVs and grieved for people we didn't know ..."

"We feel like we know them now," Yarbrough said.

"A policeman asked why we were doing this," Parrish said. "We said it wasn't just New York that was attacked, but all of us."

"I'm here because it didn't happen to me," Yarbrough said. "I'm here out of gratitude - I want to do whatever I can to help."

Both Parrish and Yarbrough said they found many opportunities to offer comfort and God's peace to people who were hurting. "We've prayed with everyone," they said. "You can see God alive and well in New York City."

At the end of the day, as a group of tired volunteers climbed into a van bound for the shipyard, a nattily dressed young businessman spotted the yellow hats and hustled over. "I can't tell you how neat it is what you guys are doing," he said, his hands expressive, extended outward. "It's just wonderful, great. I've heard about what you are doing - everybody on the streets knows about the people in the yellow hats," he said. "Thank you! Thank you!"

Mullin grinned as the man strolled away. "It happens all the time," he said.

At the shipyard The volunteers who spent their days on the business end of vacuum cleaners and scrubbing brushes were fed and cared for, in large part, by N.C. Baptists who provide the main support services in the naval shipyard, just across the East River, in Brooklyn.

Beddie Tarlton left Grifton, where she and husband, Billy, have headed recovery efforts for victims of Hurricane Floyd, at 9 a.m. on Sept. 12. She didn't leave New York until clean-up efforts wrapped up on Dec. 11.

In what may be a first for Baptist Men's recovery efforts, a woman, Beddie, was the "white hat" in charge of North Carolina's recovery efforts. To identify the "go-to" people on site, most volunteers wear yellow hats, while team leaders wear blue hats, and higher-level coordinators wear white hats. Bob Helms of Alabama was the on-site "white hat" overseeing the broader Southern Baptist relief efforts, which are coordinated through the North American Mission Board.

Crews from North Carolina ran a portable kitchen, maintained a shower unit and operated two laundry units in support of other volunteers. N.C. crews also cooked in the large feeding station operated by the Salvation Army at Ground Zero and helped to clean apartments.

Volunteers slept behind bars in a former Navy brig located a block and a half away. The building has also served as a New York City jail and is still used by the police department for training purposes.

Accommodations were far from posh - 25-bed dormitories of hard, steel bunks with thin mattresses, adjacent to open showers and toilets. Many volunteers preferred to use the N.C. shower unit, even though it was more than a block away, because it offered more privacy.

A kitchen crew provided meals for the 130 volunteers who typically inhabited the site, along with any firefighter or police officer who wanted to stop by. Another crew did laundry for all the volunteers in two new units created by N.C. Baptists specifically for the project (see story on Page 9).

Most volunteers worked one-week assignments, though many made multiple trips.

The kitchen crew's day typically began at 4:30 a.m. and lasted until 8 p.m. or later. Most food supplies were provided by the Red Cross and prepared on site. The crew laid out a full, hot breakfast each morning, prepared box lunches for the cleaning crews, and capped it off with an evening meal. Cleaning up and transporting food items took up the balance of the day.

"It's been a lot of hard work," said Linda Cardin, who was on her first disaster recover trip, "but very rewarding." Cardin was with a group of seven from the Stanley-Dallas area, most from First Baptist Church of Stanley.

Wanda Lanier and Sue Estep, both of Riegelwood Baptist Church, spent the entire week doing laundry - up to 97 loads a day - a chore that sometimes lasted from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Their work involved sorting, washing, drying and folding volunteers' soiled clothes, then packing them neatly into a white plastic bag sporting hand-drawn artwork (mostly by Beddie Tarlton) and a printed scripture verse. Tammy Dunkum of Virginia assisted with the artwork and selection of scriptures.

In their spare time, the laundry crew cleaned and maintained the shower unit. Their fingers were sore, tender, and sometimes bleeding at night, they said. "But it's worth it," Estep said, "because we're giving to the Lord."

The week in New York City was Lanier's first mission trip. Her reaction? "It won't be my last."

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12/14/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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