A Ground Zero Impact of September 11, 2001

College survives near ground zero in spite of last year's tragedy and the course of many students lives are changed forever.
by Melisa Stratis

It is only a nine-block walk to "Ground Zero" from Nyack College's Manhattan campus. Many of the members of that campus can relate dramatic stories of escape, of volunteer rescue work, of personal loss on 9-11. But as we approach the one-year mark of that day, what has the past year meant to these individuals spiritually? What has it meant to the Manhattan campus as a whole to remain so close to the aftermath of such an event? And how have they uniquely seen God at work?

"You could have looked from this window to see the Twin Towers. But not anymore," Deborah Harris told me as we sat in the campus chapel, a large classroom with a wide view downtown. "But that doesn't stop us-we're going to affect the lives of people in this city. Every born-again Christian's presence makes a difference." Deborah works for the dean of students and is an alumna with a master's degree in urban ministry. When she walks each day to and from the train station she prays for people as she passes them by. "Because we're here," she says, "We're covering for them. Somebody somewhere prayed for us to bring us to where we are now-we just didn't know it then."

Nyack's Manhattan campus was in the middle of registering its students when 9-11 occurred. In its aftermath, the campus was forced to vacate its buildings for a week because they stood within the "frozen zone." The administration quickly regrouped. Every Manhattan staff and faculty member was given the names and phone numbers of Manhattan students, to locate them and find out-Were they ok? Were their loved ones ok? Somewhere during the course of these calls the campus became a family. Students and their loved ones were invited to join college staff and faculty for a prayer service in the Lamb's Theater in Manhattan. One by one the students arrived, until there were hundreds of them, bringing tears to the eyes of staff and faculty members. The students began to share their stories, and the college began to listen.

Immediately following the crisis, Nyack College members helped their community. They reached out to the other businesses residing in their Worth Street building by holding noon prayer meetings and inviting their neighbors to it. The neighbors came, as one staff member said, "because our doors were open and they needed a place to go." They touched Ground Zero through volunteer work in relief and food efforts. Some worked with Manhattan campus alumnus Marcos Rivera as he established a Ground Zero counseling force. And they equipped over 500 local ministers through their first Urban Ministry Conference, "From Hurt to Hope," held in the fall.

God knew what His children would have to face, and He made His own silent provisions for them. Many of those provisions came to students in the form of Nyack staff and faculty, who loved them as their own children. Take, for example, adjunct psychology professor Denise Hirschlein. Despite her two-and-a-half hour commute to get into the city, Denise knew God was calling her to Nyack as soon as she visited and saw so many cultures unified for one purpose. She began in September 2001, and taught one class before 9-11. Denise could never have foreseen the implications of the fact that God had planted her only blocks away from a terrible tragedy.

Denise began to ask God what her students most needed to hear, which led to a very special worship service on the last day of class. When her students entered the classroom, it was dark, and upon every desk stood the light of a single candle-representing each one of them. In the front of the room stood the light of another candle-Christ. As they listened, she played a series of six songs. As the songs expressed despair, to demonstrate how all the students had experienced doubt and difficulty, she slowly blew out every candle-except one. Christ's light alone remained lit at the front. As the songs progressed, she re-lit every one of their lights with the light of Christ. "You have not failed as Christians because of doubt or wavering," she told them. "It is OK to wrestle with doubt." She told me, "Reality is not that we live a perfect life. Real faith says: I believe you are God, so I'll persevere."

And the students did persevere. "At the beginning, the school lost prospective students," Deborah Harris told me, "But, moving on, we see how the students are coming back-this has to do with the Lord. To be in this institution that equips you, enables you to become a pastor, a minister-this education builds the students up. While initially 9-11 was felt through the loss of 110 prospective students, enrollment this fall was still higher than it had been the previous year-which means 928 students traveled regularly toward Ground Zero in order fulfill their calling. As one student told me: "Was I afraid? Yes. Did I still do it? Yes."

Why did they do it?

Lesly Milord, the director of admissions at the Manhattan campus, may have wondered the same thing. "People are so convinced the time is now," Lesly shared. "God wants them to come here and get their education. For people who may have been falling asleep in the Way, 9-11 was a wake-up call for them, not only to seek God in personal devotions, but to seek God in education." After 9-11, students who had expressed interest in the college years earlier but never came were suddenly phoning Lesly to say, "God is calling me there." As he talks with returning students as well, Lesly finds that students who were training for childhood education now want a pastoral ministry minor to serve in their local church. Business majors and psychology majors now want to combine their studies with Bible minors.

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