(October 18, 2001 email from Russ Keat to Pete
permission granted to post, minus a few confidential items.
Listen to an NPR "Front Porch" interview with this friend
and former Long Green Valley-er, Russ Keat,
who spent 3 days at ground zero.)
Was crunching on a decision on whether to take a speaking engagement (seems self aggrandizing) about WTC at a local college and found the answer in the last lines of your sermon. thanks for the challenge. I'll try to be worthy of the answer.
This was nothing short of a spiritual odyssey. It took me the next many steps down the path of the theology of risk taking. Spiritual risk taking, the theology behind physical, emotional, spiritual risk taking. Part of my own life long walk has been about the get your hands dirty in the problem, personnel investment of self kind of theology. Yeah worldliness. Touching the horror. Part of my calling seems to be to go into the horrors, and I have both succeeded and failed. when I have failed the horror won out, and fear was what I operated on. Usually, long after the precipitating event.
I'd like to return the challenge I found in your sermon, in kind if I might. I read in your sermon your need to turn away from the horror. I do indeed know the feeling, but want to challenge you with a thought. I think we are all called to look at it all, and if we do..... we find something even greater in our faith. I think we are called to look at the horror, all of it ,even to the point of losing our own sense of peace. Called to see the horror, to enter into the horror. Yes, even to be poisoned and made sick physically emotionally by the horror. Yes, I agree that to watch this all gratuitously in cycles serves no purpose, but to avoid its pain, at fullest magnitude, is I think against our calling. , If we trust God, we can go farther. If we live the Christ-like example, we all try to be, then walking into abject horror is part of the Christ like path. Yes, at times, that horror, and the accompanying anger, and worse... fear can feel like we are being nailed to a cross ourselves but........
I think Christ showed us by example, how he could walk into the horrors of our earth and take on our sins, and yes to be even hurt and killed by them. And in doing so God's grace is what rose from the experience for all to see clearly. , that is real Search and Rescue. (SAR) Searching desperately looking for and finding God's grace and rescuing it from evil situations. Going into the Horror and by doing so resurrecting God's intentions for us. That is real SAR. , I think the WTC experience and the loss of 400 rescue workers is analogous. Christ like decisions made 400 times individually to sacrifice self for the masses 22 thousand lives saved. Rarely can we see such things on such a scale so clearly. We all saw the resurrection that day.... Right next to the horror. The deeper we looked the more we saw it. I have touched them, prayed with the them, both the living and the dead. Believe me the miracle isn't on 42 second street. Its in the engine companies, ambulances and under the helmets of a thousand fire fighters, police officer, EMTs. Look into the horror and you will see what we normally have to take on faith.
I am just starting to get into the process of mining the WTC experience for what I have learned. But Some of it is looking at different personal theologies at work and how they divide along different lines. I sort of noticed that there is a natural break in theologies. I think they are the theologies of risk and grace if we fail, and the theologies of we can't and we shouldn't. I have certainly lived out both, and fear is the basis of the theologies of paralysis. At least mine....
As well you know, just like everyone else I have lived in hell. Evil play out powerfully to destroy God's intentions for me. I have wrestled with evil's desire to destroy the good stuff in my own life.... Itís hard, its scary. It was horror. The faithful prayed for me, and I will forever be grateful. God cared. The strength to stand up to it was knowing this isn't what God intended.
Part of the WTC SAR gig for me is I have a renewed respect for some parts of Catholicism. Catholicism really does teach the theology of risk taking and grace. I saw a lot of that in action. The NYFD is steeped in it. The example of father Mike and others. Like everyone else, I saw the Salvation Army not doing ego just there making coffee and sandwiches. I saw he Greek Orthodox prelate (right word?) sitting alone not running up just a presence available. I saw the tens of thousands of people who were not formally called out to the scene they just felt the call and showed up. in the greatest horror imaginable, no one was flinching from the horror. The truth is all of us were waste deep in it. Each of us was aware that we were breathing in with each breath, the bodies of the missing who would not be found. We risked with every action taken, doing something that might hurt or kill someone else. That is a horror, but It didn't break us. Instead, it drove each of us towards grace. to action based commitments of personal creeds philosophies and faiths. I believe there is this truth in the world, those that must serve by any given calling in any given situation will. And we are all called differently. I watched people who had the authority to act fail to, and those who were called too simply do the incredible. I think God puts a lot of different kinds of folks in the world, so we are available to each other in in different kinds of situations. Does God call us to be relevant? I fall out on that question with the answer yes, but in prayerful grace. This was a situation were God called out his risk takers. Humorous aside: how come he doesn't put the risk takers in the beatitudes.... LOL.
At ground zero, people weren't talking their belief systems. They were living it, and you could feel it flowing like a thick oil in that place. It was neat. It was the, rubber-meets-the road, kind of, get-your-hands-dirty, Christianity that I like the best. They were doing it in the fullest sense of the horror, the sights the sounds the smells, the hidden risks. The risk of an unstable pile buildings threatening to come down, and coming down......parts of buildings we had been in the night before, threats of further terror attacks on the rescue workers. And yet they were out there, seeing the horror feeling the horror diving deep into the horror. Not doing so untouched, at times hurting, at times grieving most had lost peers and friends, some relatives. A few quiet moments sitting in a basement Hardee's, a foot deep in water again listening to that small still voice. being led by a very tangible hand, back to the pile. At times, when one person lost it, (We call it being blown) we'd look them in the eyes. We shook hands like we were holding hands. We used our eyes and our hands to will each other back into to grace and to courage. God was in the eyes and hands of the man next to me, and.... he wanted me to know it, not in word just in the power of being. I saw Christ. I saw the resurrection. I found it surrounded by horror.
For myself after 16 straight hours of climbing sky scrapers and diving voids, entering horror as deep as anyone could...I was blown. I was A dusty dirty "old guy" with that look in my eyes that I had seen the night before on the faces of the "old guys" who were in before me. At Ground Zero, we divided the world into "old guys" and "young guys." Young guys just meant you hadn't been in yet. As young guys, we all looked at the very old guys returning to base knowing we were looking at changed men. And that they were our future. Knowing that in just few hours we too would be like them. We wanted to ask them the question....? But never could quite approach them. We knew the question didn't have answer. What was it like.....More accurately, how has this horror changed you? The answer was in the eyes but didn't have words...so we never asked.
I walked off the line, a very, very, very, old guy, someone gave me a logistics tasking. I was sent to the Hudson River ostensibly to take pallets of water off of a tug boat. With a blown head, a torn back muscle, it was the last thing, I thought I needed. I got to see the sunset over Lady Liberty. I needed that sunset, and I needed to see Lady Liberty. I touch the marine environment that always gives me a lift. 10 minutes later, I was back in it again. I saw 60K examples a day of Christ walking into hell taking it all, and by doing so Goodness and grace was elevated. I saw the resurrection played out in all its detail thousands of times. I spent the rest of that night back at Ground Zero working off that sunset, and that moment of friendship.
So many examples,: Two college kids who went to the store, and spent every cent they had buying out the peanut butter and jelly aisles. They spent a week making sandwiches out of the back of a jalopy, and walking them 5 blocks into hand them out. To see young people making a commitment really warmed the heart of old guys. A Canadian who showed up saying "if we are going to be neighbors I'd rather be a good one." A fire fighter who after being trapped in the wreckage for 2 days, who on release tried to pick up his tools and go back to work to find someone else. Doctors and nurses standing there ready to help you, who when you got hurt didn't pull you off the line despite training. They patched you up so you could go back in. , I was treated 4 times for smoke inhalation, and had my eyes washed at least 40 times. That's not my story. Human resilience moving beyond training is an amazing thing. At the time, I was the only one on scene with my SAR specialty. Taking me off the line wasn't an option. I looked at my Jewish pulmonologist, and on round 4 of Russ hits the gurney, when he really desperately just wanted to cart me off to a bed in an up town hospital, he just looked at me, shook his head and gave me what I needed for 4 more hours to get back in. That MD, in the horror found the resilience, I saw Christ thousands of times. Those Drs. had the hardest gig. They stood ready to treat thousands, and most never got to treat anyone out of the pile. Their sense of horror, just 30 feet from the line was palpable. They rose anyway. Grief councilors stood there talking listening. After a while, they heard so much, saw so much, that they started to buckle. They stood fast. They looked at the horror. After while, the rescue workers were treating the grief councilors. The best way, was to take them farther into the horror. I took one onto the pile, and said here is what your working for. The horror actually strengthened her.
In some respects I think I am actually better off then most of the nation. The frustration I hear from all the rest who have had to watch and not be able to do something is really hard. I think that has created a lot of anger. I am spending a lot of my interview time trying to walk people through that.. For myself I got a good rootin-tootin way to work that out, by being able to physically do something. It helped to watch so many ordinary citizens turn out, and just walk on to the pile, and then step up to greatness. Human resilience....yeah I saw the resurrection.
I think not turning away from the horror does cause pain. But pain even in the absolute has a value This pain internalized, and acted on by grace, comes out on the other end as a bomb proof commitment to act out grace. To live for grace, to risk it all for grace.
Don't turn away. Walk into the worst and you will be changed by it. My favorite theologian John Westerhoff said once that real Christians are willing to risk going to hell for to be an instrument of grace in hell. That line now is ringing true when I look at the many examples of lives invested that I have just seen. a simple truth learned at ground zero......Christians belong in hell. Another simple truth: God is in hell and the feeling of heaven can be felt strongest,.... often in hell.
There was a huge feeling of being led and protected. A tangible hands on sense of the spiritual. Led and protected in a very tangible way. Grace was winning out in the long run over power. Resoundingly!
Yeah, a spiritual odyssey implies a lesson There were many, A lot of it is basically a week long exercise in detach to listen to where I am supposed to be and do, and then submit to a plan greater then my list of protocols and nevers. Something I have done before, but this was more intense.
To write it all down would border on the Homeric. Suffice it to say. I went in with a learned/tested theology and spiritual practices that were the kindergarten entry level requirements to this test/lesson.
I have this little thing that sometimes I hear this small still voice in my head, that just on intuition tells you what to do. I heard it Tuesday morning and it said "GO" It said You have seen this before. FEMA will not show up until the viability widow has closed. I need you down there now." One of my life's most painfully learned lessons has been to trust that voice. To follow it. To listen to it. Its like a knowledge base and a forecast is given, and it tells you what to do. It comes as you know from with in, but not from the self.
I have a prayer I used to say everyday when I walked down the tunnel of my former employer, and on the back of my ambulance in Baltimore. It goes like this "Lord if you are willing and I am ready, let me be your hands today." I have found that can be a very dangerous prayer, because I say it only if I am ready to stay in a state of grace and when I am, I often get that call. Part of that is a willingness to see it all, to walk with horror.
My thing is to subordinate my ego (also my hugest challenge) and listen to that small voice inside. to trust it. In this situation, on a minute by minute basis In this situation it was the same experience but a million times stronger. It told me what to do where to be. What to do next. At times, it said things like "You are done eating now. ....Some one is grieving....... Go out to Broadway and Chambers....and wait...." I went out into the street ,and I saw her; recognized her. I could tell what she was there for. I didn't approach her. I just sat down quietly on a jersey wall. ...and she came and sat next to me. there were hundreds of people on that intersection. She was an EMT of 12 years she had lost her shift partner in the collapse, and she was just there looking in.... Yeah I had to touch the pain feel it. It was searing. But something bigger came of it. And it was stronger then the pain and the horror. Resilience, Resurrection and so I sat down and just waited.
I bet that call to stop,.... to talk to a grieving individual happened nearly 20 times. and each time just like that. "Stop what your doing and go to this location....."GOD wasn't taken on faith I felt him heard him at times, he had a physically felt arm on my shoulder
Don't let me leave you with a mistaken impression.....this is no challenge from a guy who doesn't fail in the face of horror and pain..... I did have my crisis of faith moment. I had packed up, driven at 90 mph to NYC and I on my last driven leg. I was riding in a on a bomb squad truck going in to the scene. I'm looking out the window looking at a big city with guys with submachine guns patrolling the streets. I'm thinking OK GOD....?????? Am, I really supposed to be here?????? AM I here on just the force of my personality?....Or am I right in feeling that I am being led. Am I really supposed to be here???.... Show me a sign..... Scouts honor, I was ready to turn around, if I saw just a hint of a sign that said bug out. So I asked the question: "God....I need to know before I go any farther."
No sooner had I finished that thought, then I saw a car with an OG sticker in the window (Ocean Grove -the Methodist church camp meeting my family has been going to for over 100 years) . This place has been one of the foundational continuing growth places of my faith for my whole life.... , of all the places we might have stopped in Manhattan, we stop right in front of this OG sticker....I'm looking out a tiny window and can't see anything but that sticker......So I think "OK wow what are the chances of that. "I hear it Lord. Thanks." we drive down the road, Then almost like to make sure I got it .....got it in spades..... The truck in front of us starts backing up to get around a corner. So my bomb disposal ride starts backing me about 50 feet, right up to that OG sticker again and it stops so its front and center right out the window. I'm starring at this thing just feet from my little window....Do you hear it Russ?..... I heard it.
I said "OK Lord, I'm hear for you and I'll do anything, say anything be anything you want, you lead me. I won't question this calling again."
It also didn't stop there. That experience just got magnified. Anytime I needed something I just dropped my eyes and looked left and just got real quiet and thought about it. Not really a prayer just got real quiet. and I'd get that small still voice, or a one of those physical signs like the OG stickler, or the can of spray paint, or a new set of directions showed up.
I needed to mark void entrances, I fell into a silence dropped my eyes and asked for a can of paint and a means to attach it to my body. I just looked on the street at my feet and with in 10 feet I had found what I was needing. I found an industrial sized bottle of day glo pink spray paint and then 10 feet later a lanyard in a place that nothing but dust was being found.
The local NH cable channel has a catholic religious channel. I watched the catholic mass for the lost NYFD and father Mike. Immediately afterwards, was a show in which a Catholic friar did a show about "detaching and submitting" Detaching so one could hear God's plan, submitting to the plan greater then the one we carry for ourselves. Sort of like after living the lesson, I got the message of Oh and the formal name for this process is.... LOL
The oddest thing is, I have most often in my life been nothing, but what I ask for in that prayer, usually the guy working behind a wall of talkers. This time was different. Same thing the voice, the opportunity. I always turn down interviewers after a SAR call. I sat there listening to the guy before me talking righteous retribution America's anger and impatience.... The gig was they were going to spring board from him to a guy who is really angry, a guy back from the pile....I just thought your not going to get led there. I opened my mouth, and something different fell out. Tired as I was, I just dropped my eyes looked left and said I am going to speak grace, let them see that grace is here.
This search has been a lesson in concrete Amazing Grace. Its been a huge privilege. Funny thing is that being at WTC was relatively easy. Itís the being home that has been very stressful. I am getting some real odd phone calls. Local paper doing an investigative piece as to weather I should have been there rather then other local assets. Sending questions to me via registered mail. Legal instruments trying to trap me so they can build a negative story. Odd they are looking for Watergate in a human interest story. Odd and scary. They aren't reporting a story just competing with another newspaper that got the story first..
Then the phone calls from some other NH SAR folks started Why did you get to go, and I didn't ? Very angry. They say really dumb things like "Well, next time, I'll be standing up there with you ..... Or next time, I'll be there, and I'll make sure your not." Really odd, these folks are wanting there to be a next time for something that should never happen even once. Personally, I'm hoping none of us ever have to stand on top, or crawl through anything like this again. Then I get folks calling whom I don't know, never met who are offering me counseling for the "world of hurt in my head" Its not really a want to help, Itís a sick, desire in them to want to hear the gory details. Itís very strange. Itís about wanting to be a hero in this situation.
For me, I think there is a lesson in this . After 80 + interviews, it would be easy to lose the grounding. To say yeah it was me..... It wasn't. I threaded a real scary set of needles risking it all physically, but in other ways too. The ego wants you to stay, but the pro tells you when your not needed. We in SAR work hard to cut our egos down, so we can work together, so we can keep the victims as priority one. We work hard to rid our groups of folks, who can't subordinate their egos totally to the good of the victims, the lost.
Ego verses the small voice. Itís a tough battle. On Friday, I found my original taskings all done. I had thought about leaving Thursday night, but Incident Command asked me to do a few more things. By Friday it was done. I could have stayed, found new tasking done something else, but that small still voice, and self were both telling me that I had done what I was brought for, and that what was needed next was for me to give up my space on Manhattan to a steel worker or a rigger, someone that could move 1000 tons of steel at a time. As much as I wanted to be there, stay there, and continue to enjoy the feeling of being that close to God's calling.... The best thing I could do for the situation was leave. Hard to do. What is most amazing is that calling has continued daily even as I am not at Ground Zero. Mostly to council those locally grieving their own lost at Ground Zero. Each found in just the most chance serendipity of meetings.
I like to think perhaps, I submitted to the plan when perhaps for me it was hardest. Now, I am listening on the phone to the negative examples of folks who don't seek the gifts of grace, but instead the fruits of an ego ever in need of feeding. I'm learning from both the positive and the negative form of the lesson. In any SAR situation, one of the toughest things is knowing when to leave. , I wanted to stay... I left anyway.
There is a line in a scary movie that applies here. You wanna see something really scary!.....the other night I saw a picture that is a challenge to me and I'm not sure what to do with it. So I'm just listening. I saw on the Internet a picture, verified as undoctored, 3 different news cameras, from different angles captured the same thing. A picture of the face of Satan in the dust as tower 2 collapsed....... It looked like Satan with horns and all--with a malevolent grin looking down. Gets a little scary when I think of it all in the terms of a cosmic good and a cosmic evil ,doing battle with little ole me caving under Manhattan. I was really led to this?...... the simple truth his yes.....
I tend to look at those things with a very skeptical eye,. Evil is most often, to me, just natural events causing sadness and human weakness. To me evil has always been nothing more then human weakness acting out. Itís been nature acting cruelly, to end lives, so others may have their turn on earth. This picture is a challenging me, to think beyond that.... Still, a directed force for evil in this God given world is hard for me to believe in.
My intuition, is saying yup it was real. weather there is a god of evil and a god of light or weather there is a God dealing with the evils of human weakness, is splitting hairs. Evil was there. However, that picture of evil, evil with a face, makes me feel like perhaps I threaded/was led through a needle, more closely closer then I knew. I knew I was taking physical and emotional risks? I didn't plan on the possibility that I was taking spiritual ones. Maybe I wasn't.... maybe I was taking spiritual risks. I can't tell yet. What ever the nature of evil, working at WTC was nothing more then being one of 60K individuals, papering goodness over a badness committed by individuals suffering from megalomania , traumatized persons, whose zeal and passions are misplaced.. I looked at that picture, and it left me wondering. Was I led into a spiritual ground Zero, between two cosmic personalities, one goodness and grace, and one evil and power? Was I led by God to crawl into the holes, to go under the pile, to go into a hell filled with fires poisons, and other physical dangers that makes sense to me. Being led to locations of spiritual risks doesn't make any sense to me. Just a question that probably will never a have answer. If I had seen that picture before I left for the WTC, I think I might well have run like a bunny and hid. It may seem mellow dramatic to think of it in those terms, but its got me wondering. Lots of questions most don't have words yet. But they run in suites. Like of the big question was this one of those times when two Gods good and evil took off their gloves and went at it? If so why was I there? Why was I sent hundreds of times, alone, into the bottom basements of a burning WTC, in a pile, rather then in a fortified crowd of believers. Yes, they were with me in prayer, and I felt that strongly, but being down stairs physically alone is..... well very alone...The mythology of heaven and hell is directional, skyward and in the bowels of the earth. I got led to go underground usually alone....?
I have no answer, but I can tell you this. Mortal as we all may be. We can be called to go into hell, to be hurt by it, We can expect God to call us to look into the horror and asked not to flinch. I can tell you that when that calling comes it can hurts... like hell sometimes for years. Sometimes just for days. Some times just for a moment However, when it happens there is this thing that happens. God isn't with us in a faithful nebulous. He is a physical presence. If all of that is so, my lesson is not to grow more powerful, but more graceful and patient.
I don't have any Christ like delusions. He died and was buried, and 3 days later he rose from the tomb..... But looking in that photo of that face, evilly smiling in the photo I heard that voice again. Golly, I spent 3 days in a tomb, underground, and arose again to the street level, to find people on my phone trying t scare me, trying to hurt me, trying to make me feel not sad....but angry. It feels like now that grace was successful lived out.... Now evil wants to take the lessons the learning, to cut me. You can't live out grace when your scared as hell. So I have decided, and its hard right now, not to be afraid but to work harder to not be fearful, to work harder to stay in grace. I spent the past two days looking at a statue of Lincoln's face sad and wise hanging with a sculptor, paddling with the kids, not answering the phone. I have often said, I lost my faith years ago, and now I live in a quiet sense of knowing having seen so much. Well, guess what..... Itís not good enough. Now I am having to do the faith Thing.... Take it on faith that I'm not supposed to be afraid of my nay sayers, and can't afford to be afraid. I have to stay in grace, and I have to keep living out the theology of risk taking, even as the detractors want to kill that ....mostly because they are driven to want to be, not grace driven, but to be heroic, but for different purposes. So I guess the odyssey continues, but in that picture, the size of the playing field seems bigger the calling now and the risks larger. Yikes!
Here is something I discovered recently in another experience and was confirmed by this experience. I found myself thinking about it, while I was waiting for a fire to burn out so I could pass. Perhaps its the only thing, I found of any lasting value in the WTC. A little history: I grew up Lutheran. When Lutherans are confirmed, at around age 15 they write a profession of Faith. I revisit mine every year. The opening statement of my profession of faith delivered at my confirmation reads: "I believe God is the most powerful force in all space and time in the universe....." At 40 I no longer believe that. Simply stated God isn't powerful at all, and doesn't intend to be.
Perhaps 15 year old boys build God in their own image, or at least in the image of what we wish we could be. I learned that in a comparative religious studies class at Juniata College. that we tend to build God in our own image. If evil is a force in the universe, more then human weakness, it intends to be powerful. It sure was on Tuesday 9/11 with the market cornered on power. My sense now is that God does not intend to be powerful. God intends to be a graceful nurturing presence. Risking but in a different way.... God is not about power, God is about grace and love about risk taking. Yeah, and about suffering. God is about investment of self for good, about commitment and growth. Its a paradox, I lived the first 40 years with a decent relationship, but with a flawed assumption. Very weird. As strong as I felt God's presence for 3 days... God was never powerful with me. He was just quiet voices, intuition and a very persistent set of obvious Jungian synchronicities.
Yeah, I saw power and the results of it. But that did not emanate from God. Interesting lesson for me... Yeah, I feel sadness. I watch on the TV to see the men and women I was working with grieve for those they have lost. For families who have lost loved ones. I get sad when I see other buildings destroyed in other lands. Now someone else somewhere else is diving wreckage. Yeah, we need to go find these guys, and as you mentioned in your sermon the business of building peace and justice is a horror filled job too. Justice is not black and white is it? , I want to look away, but I am not called to that. Instead, I am speaking in front of groups now, and I am asking a speakers fee. Itís a hefty one. ....and every cent goes to the families. I try to talk for grace, rather then fear and anger, and when I do, sometimes I scare people, people who are afraid who are challenged, and who are hopeless, are dangerous people. Sometimes, that gets directed towards me. If evil has a tool box, I think fear is its biggest hammer.
So the head and spirit is doing pretty darn good. The body on the other hand.... Golly guess I am not 20 something anymore. Heck I'm not even a lithe 30 something. LOL. In the long run I should be pretty darn OK! :) So prayers of healing are appreciated. Just as I tangibly felt prayers of safety and deliverance under ground and in in prior situations .... I am sure God will answer in what ever he has planned for me. Giving me not what I want, but what I need to grow.
Yes, it is hard to look into the horror, but it is my experience that the
closer one is to horror, the more intensely we can see experience, and be in
God's grace. It is easy to find God lying in a manger surrounded by the
bucolics of farm life. It is a tougher place to stand endlessly at Golgotha (the
place of skulls) Yet Christ's real moment of truth was born out of a horror. A
gentle suggestion: Seek the horror, work in horror, Let the horror touch you
deeply, let it move you closer to God.
Hang tough, your brother and friend
"Healing continues. MDs put me on more PT and now muscle
relaxants as well as some meds to help my lungs/bronchi heal. Headed
in the right direction I guess. Surgery is still a possibility on the
shoulder, to he attach the muscle to its rightful place.
Sermons at Long Green Valley Church since September 11th:
"Search and Rescue" (9/16/01)
"When Utmost Evil" (9/23/01)
"Holding on to what cannot be grasped" (9/30/01)
"Of power, love and self-discipline" (10/7/01)
"Shifting proverbs to live by" (10/14/01)
"Don't Cease ... Persist!" (10/21/01)
"Inner Resistance" (10/28/01)