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United Methodist 'listeners' reach out to New Yorkers

10/19/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: Photographs are available.

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) - The Rev. Chuck Ferrara stood in front of John Street United Methodist Church, a few blocks from what was once the World Trade Center, waiting for his ride to "ground zero."

For this former police officer turned pastor, being able to coax police, fire and other rescue workers on the scene to talk about what they're feeling -- including the guilt of having survived the Sept. 11 attack when their comrades did not - is an accomplishment.

Immediately after the tragedy, people had difficulty expressing their shock. "I'm finding five weeks gone by, they're able to talk about it a little easier," he told United Methodist News Service in an Oct. 17 interview.

The pastor of New Fairfield (Conn.) United Methodist Church, Ferrara also has helped staff the "listening post" at John Street Church, established by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and the denomination's New York Annual (regional) Conference.

Sometimes he finds people on the street and encourages them to come in to talk. A subway employee who led passengers out of the station after the first airplane hit the World Trade Center has spoken twice with Ferrara. Others are drawn into the church, such as the artist "who said he was an atheist but that he wanted to share and find hope."

But Ferrara is trying to spend more time at "ground zero" because he believes his presence is needed there. That's not surprising, since he was on the list for promotion to captain with the New York Police Department in the mid-1980s when he sensed a call to the ministry. At the time, he had been on the job for nearly 15 years. His chief moved him from a precinct to a headquarters job at Manhattan South, which covers the area below 59th Street, to make it easier for him to attend classes at Drew University. After a year, he left the force and entered seminary on a full-time basis.

Now, Ferrara is using those contacts to connect with police officers and others who are more willing to open up to someone who can understand their situation. Although life has become a bit more "normal" in the weeks following the attack, "for those who witnessed the towers collapsing or the planes crashing into the buildings, it's a nightmare they have a hard time dealing with," he said.

Many, he predicts, will need long-term therapy. "There's no silver bullet or magic wand that's going to erase this from their memories," he explained.

Ferrara wasn't the only United Methodist trying to minister to the people of New York. At the Habitat Hotel in midtown, where the UMCOR team is based, Ann Huffman of the North Carolina Conference was coordinating the placement of volunteers for listening posts in various Manhattan churches. She said she was scheduling both for the current week and for the next few months.

Two of the volunteers for the week of Oct. 15 were Sally and Carl Moran, members of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Wilmington, Del., who signed up after hearing of the need from their pastor.

"We lost a son, when he was 24 years old, very suddenly," Mrs. Moran said. "Having experienced that, we felt we could offer help."

Mr. Moran added that their presence really represented their entire congregation. "We were like a lot of other people in our church," he explained. "We just wanted to reach out to New York."

The Morans spent Oct. 15 and 16 as listeners at Park Avenue United Methodist Church, where they said they offered more of a comforting presence than direct counseling. A young woman asked if she could sing in the sanctuary. "I told her I'd be delighted," Mr. Moran recalled. "She went up, faced the altar, and in a very prayerful way, sang 'Amazing Grace.'

"We touched hands as she walked out, and that seemed to be enough," he said.

The Rev. Len Buxton, a retired New York clergyman who is coordinating the listening post program, noted that it isn't always easy to know what effect a listener has had. "There is sometimes a momentary disappointment when people are giving up so much of their time and there doesn't seem to be a response," he said.

But, he stressed, just standing outside a church door can make a witness, as he's learned during the past couple of weeks at John Street. "People will go by twice, three times, pause, look at the sandwich board (advertising the listening post), and after the third or fourth time, shuffle in," he said.

One day, Buxton and Ferrara were both busy for all but 20 minutes of a long afternoon session with those seeking a friendly ear. "There were contacts that ran anywhere from five minutes to, in one case, an hour and 20 minutes," Buxton said.

The need for listeners may increase during the holiday period, but it is too early to predict the success of the program, he said. "There is yet no way of evaluating how well we're doing and how effective this will be."

For the Rev. Brad Knepp, a United Methodist pastor from Mount Holly Springs, Pa., just being able to provide a pastoral presence was enough. He and his wife, Wendy, were part of UMCOR's volunteers for the week, and Knepp had used his clerical collar to talk his way into "ground zero" on Oct. 15 and 16.

Walking through devastation "far worse than any TV camera can pick up," Knepp said he assured the relief workers there that people from around the country were praying for them. "They just said, 'We need your prayers,'" he reported. "It seems like some of them are only now beginning to talk about it."

The experience at the World Trade Center site "only deepened my desire to pray, which is what we can all do," Knepp said. "It's made me aware of our common need for Christ."

Donations to support United Methodist work, in New York and around the nation, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks can be designated to UMCOR Advance No. 901125-3, "Love in the Midst of Tragedy." Checks can be placed in church collection plates or mailed to UMCOR at 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Credit-card donations may be made by calling (800) 554-8583.

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*Bloom is news director of United Methodist News Service's New York office.

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