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How a 9/11 Navy Chaplain Silenced a San Francisco Radio Show

The stench of death hung in the air like a miasma from some hellish swamp.  At the end of the block was a wall of bare plywood. The wall had been erected to hide the fleet of refrigerator trucks which were filled with small frozen parcels.

No matter how much the Medical Examiner’s staff tried to show appropriate reverence and respect, it still boiled down to a grisly scene. A gowned masked worker would be dispatched to a refrigerator truck. He would then bring one of the frozen parcels to exhausted forensic workers who, in assembly-line fashion, were examining them in tents to try and retrieve some clues about who and what they were dealing with.

Our team of chaplains closed out the last third of each day at the largest indoor space I had ever seen—a pier building that housed all the agencies investigating the worst crime scene in American history as well as those who were coordinating all the services to surviving family members.

One image periodically still crashes into my mind all these years later—a draped-off area that served as a giant nursery and childcare area for all the kids who lost parents in the collapse of the Twin Towers. The size of the place and the number of kids being cared for there were stunning. It was larger than the size of the sanctuary of the church I had pastored back in Oregon. During my time at Ground Zero, the number of kids I saw in that draped-off area was higher than the headcount of my full congregation back in Oregon—about 300 at the time.

I described the scene as if it happened yesterday. The radio show host sat silent, listening respectfully. Listeners who had called in before me were anything but respectful.

Driving along Interstate 5 from Oregon to California, I had tuned into KGO, a radio station from San Francisco that has a monster signal. As soon as I crossed their frequency, the show caught my attention. They were talking about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

We were near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and controversy had arisen surrounding a proposed Islamic Cultural Center to be constructed a few short blocks from Ground Zero. This 13-story Islamic Community Center and Place of Prayer, as described by the developers, was to be erected on the site where the former building had been condemned. The condemned building was damaged by the collapse of the twin towers, so the proposed Islamic center felt like a huge slap in the face to many people. Though the development was officially called Park51, it became known as “the Ground Zero Mosque.”

The host of the radio show was soliciting callers to weigh in on the heated issue.

The longer I listened to this show, the angrier I got. Every single caller was repeating various talking points about diversity and inclusion. Not one person mentioned the people of New York or anyone who had personally lived through the nightmare of 9/11.

Pulling over to the shoulder, I hurriedly dialed the number to KGO. Over and over I dialed until I finally got to the call screener, all the while hoping that the 18-wheelers whizzing by me were being driven by people who had gotten plenty of sleep the night before.

As I waited to go on the air, I prayed that God would help me curb my tongue, stay on point, and address the heart of the matter. By that time, I had been a pastor for almost thirty years. For twenty of those years, I had served as a Navy Chaplain (Reserve), and in that capacity, I had been deployed to Ground Zero on September 23rd, 2001.

I started by giving the radio listeners a brief overview of our daily schedule. I spent a third of each day at the actual site of the collapsed Twin Towers, with those who were searching for human remains. The site was still on fire and periodically, flumes of fire would spout upward like geysers.

The next third of each day I spent at the little tent city attached to the Medical Examiner’s office … the morgue. After describing the scene at the morgue, I realized the host was not going to interrupt me. I could say whatever was on my heart, unimpeded. I continued:

I’ve been listening for half an hour and no one has even brought up the families who populated that nursery in New York. The first responders. The now pre-teens whose lives were forever changed. Many of the callers have mentioned the beauty of Islam. Others have criticized the narrow-minded Islamophobes. But nobody has mentioned Sal.

Sal is the excavator operator who climbed into his rig day after day and dug his huge yellow claw into the rubble before shaking it out in the hope of retrieving human remains. I spoke to Sal every day, and one day it just occurred to me to ask him a question.

Pointing toward the chasm all around us, I spoke up, “Sal, I never thought to ask—do you have someone?” 

As I directed my eyes to the smoking rubble, he quietly turned his hard hat around and then showed me two pictures—his brother and his brother’s son. They had both been firefighters, and now they were buried in the mass of rubble.

I continued sharing my perspective with the talk show audience.

You’ve all spoken so clinically and theoretically about geopolitics and a utopian vision of harmony, but I haven’t heard anyone discuss PTSD. I haven’t heard anyone mention how triggers can bring back all of the horrors in a nanosecond.

By this time, sitting there on the side of Interstate 5, I was experiencing that exact phenomenon—I could smell the stench of decomposing bodies as if it were 2001 all over again. PTSD is like that. Sometimes the mere rehearsal of an event can trigger that kind of response.

This is not a political issue. It is a human decency issue. I challenge your audience to ask how you might feel if you were one of the scores of people who came home on September 11th to hear a message left on your answering machine. You could hear the panic in your husband’s or dad’s or mother’s voice as they told you for the last time that they loved you … only to have the call suddenly end … leaving you to wonder, ‘Did they die right at that moment?’

Almost ten years later, do you think the pain has subsided for those people? Do you not realize that for many, even the act of physically going to that part of Manhattan will forever trigger the most horrific memories anyone could endure? And now the newspapers and the evening news broadcasters are vomiting it all up again—just so that we can show the world that we are tolerant?

The host never interrupted me once. He didn’t speak at all until it was time for a commercial break. His voice was somber as he closed, “Well, you’ve certainly given us something to think about.” 

I drove to the nearest rest area and sat there listening to the final hour of his show. The first caller after the break was a young guy who sounded like a twenty-something.

“Wow man, that last dude was really a bummer. It comes down to this man—those people in New York just had a lousy Karma.”  

I put my face in my hands and wept. Right then and there, I resolved that as long as I was alive, I would never let people forget what took place on 9/11. We must not assume that the facts will be passed on to future generations accurately. Over time, memories can be extinguished. Facts can give way to revisionist narratives. As an eyewitness, I have the responsibility to speak up when history is being misrepresented.

So it’s important for me to remember these events and to share them with others. As I remember, I often reflect on the history and nature of God’s dealings with his creation and his creatures. How can a loving Heavenly Father allow desolations like 9/11 to happen?

What are we to make of it all?

I contend that, though completely horrific, 9/11 was not a stand-alone event. There has been a steady erosion, a relentless attack, on all that our nation once held dear. Some might label me a dinosaur because I  believe that America and her founding are inextricably tied to the God of the Bible. What I don’t believe is that America is exclusively a Christian nation. I don’t believe that the religious freedoms our fathers and grandfathers died to preserve are only for Christians.

On the contrary, the founders intentionally enshrined freedom of religion as a right. I am not enamored with slogans and bumper stickers. I don’t shout, “America—Right or Wrong.” But I won’t be forced to shout “America—Always Wrong” either.

We are a nation under siege. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of that terrible, sunny September morning in New York City, my prayer is that I can give insight and hope to a nation, and a world, that is under attack by an ancient enemy.

Twenty years since that terrible day, we find ourselves in a major predicament. Rubble is once again accumulating in major cities all across America. Whole neighborhoods are ruined. Tribalism is on the rise. And families are in turmoil. The national unity which took place immediately during the aftermath of 9/11 didn’t last very long. Today we are a nation divided. The accumulated debris of our own making is immobilizing and isolating us, as well as threatening the future of our children.

As I write this, the entire world is in the grip of a pandemic. In Oregon, where I live, we have endured unprecedented lockdowns of selected enterprises. Churches have been singled out by the state for draconian isolation measures and hastily drafted, ever-changing scrutiny by the governor.

“You cannot meet in person.”

“You may not sing!”

“Communion must be delivered in sealed, sanitized, pre-packaged, officially-approved elements.”

And the list goes on.

The governor of California has publicly advocated for lifting your mask off to take a bite of food and then immediately replacing the mask until the next officially sanctioned morsel can pass your lips. Contact tracers have been hired to track down those violating the edicts of the governor. Stunning numbers of small businesses are permanently shutting their doors.

Notable exceptions to these capricious fiats are marijuana dispensaries and Planned Parenthood facilities, which haven’t missed a day of business because they are deemed ‘essential.’ Meanwhile some cancer and cardiology patients are deemed to be ‘elective’ cases. A new term has entered the national conversation—Deaths of Despair.

Schools are in a state of chaos as the rules change almost weekly. Suicides and domestic violence cases are off the charts. In Canada, the premier of the province of Ontario brazenly admitted that his province is listing suicides as pandemic deaths—and the media ignored it.

In perhaps the most egregious overreach of all, elderly patients are dying without their spouses or their children, who are forbidden from being there to hold their hands. A recent video showed how one hospital is demonstrating great improvisational skills by rigging up an apparatus attached to the ICU bed. The little arm holds up an iPad with the camera trained on the dying person’s face—so their loved ones can “be with them” as they breathe their last breath.

Some nursing homes are “allowing” loved ones to view grandma through screens or plexiglass windows. The sight resembles people viewing animals at the zoo.

Never willing to pass up what they see as a good opportunity, globalist politicians are using the pandemic pandemonium to roll out their socialist agendas. One enterprising government official said it is necessary to “put the Constitution on hold.” All these breathtaking developments have us on our heels wondering what is coming next. There is a knot in every stomach, angst in the body politic, and great anxiety around the globe.

The prophet Haggai was 70 years old when he prophesied. He had witnessed the destruction of Solomon’s temple. His entire ministry took place during a four-month period. Numerous times he used the phrase “Give careful thought to your ways.” I for my part have been doing just that. “Your ways” can be taken as singular, as in one’s personal ways. It can also be plural, meaning the corporate response of a nation or people to the Word of the Lord.

Haggai cried out, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea, and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Haggai 2:6-7 NIV).

In 2021, world leaders are promoting what they call the Great Reset. The motto for the movement to global governance and the abolition of national sovereignty is: BUILD BACK BETTER.

My question is, “How did we build back after 9/11, and are things better?”

A phrase from a sermon I preached years ago seems timely right now, “Past is Prologue.” To answer the questions I just posed—and many other questions facing us right now—I appeal to the past and go back to the morning of September 11, 2001.

It was a Tuesday, and I was still asleep…

What you’ve just read was the opening to a new book, From Rubble to Redemption: A Ground Zero Chaplain Remembers by Jim Jenkins. Click here to view the book on Amazon.

About the Author

Jim Jenkins was a Navy Reserve Chaplain for 21 years, and a pastor for 40 years. He holds a Doctorate in Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. As part of the Chaplain’s Emergency Response Team, Jim and the other team members received the Distinguished Service Award for their service at Ground Zero. The powerful and moving story of Jim’s experiences at Ground Zero has been covered by The Christian Post, In the Market with Janet Parshall, Cornerstone Television Network, Charisma Magazine, Box 2 Radio, TCT Television Network, Military Families Magazine, JubileeCast, and many other media outlets.

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