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Pastor Gives Comfort, Counsel On Sept. 11

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All week, Tell Me More is observing the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks with the series "Where Were You?"

On Sept. 11, 2001, a small group of Muslim extremists hijacked passenger jets from major U.S. airports and flew them into landmarks. In New York City, it was the World Trade Center. In Washington, D.C., it was the Pentagon. Another hijacked plane was forced down in a field in Shanksville, Pa., a tiny village now standing for the enormous sacrifice brave passengers made to wrest the plane from the hijackers.

Colleagues and listeners are recalling that day. Some were among key responders who played critical roles in the aftermath of the attacks. Some were bystanders who mourned in the wake of the attacks.

Others like the Reverend Robert J. Way, known as Pastor Bob, gave comfort and counsel. He was a little more than a month in his first pastoral assignment in a parish in Shanksville when United Flight 93 went down.

REVEREND ROBERT J. WAY: Until mid August of this year, I had been the Lutheran pastor serving two congregations in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I began serving these two congregations — St. Paul's and St. Mark — on the first of August 2001, merely 41 days before the date that now marks history for our fair land.

Little did I know what different form ministry would take as I headed into the office on September the 11th. After the morning ritual of checking phone messages and mail, I headed into Somerset for a meeting with other Lutheran clergy. Upon entering the meeting, I was informed of the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. Within minutes the secretary of the church came in to inform us of the second plane. And I knew then that it was not an "accident."

Our meeting, which includes prayers and Holy Communion, began early as we felt the need to enter into prayer for whatever was taking place. We began that worship service and once again the church secretary appeared at the door. And without interrupting, we knew that more distressing news was waiting.

It was about the flight crashing into the Pentagon. We received that news immediately upon ending the service at approximately 9:55.

After some brief conjecture with the other ministers about what could possibly be taking place, I received a cellphone call from one of my parish members, Lacey, a young woman just out of her teens. With a broken voice, both marked by shock and fear: "Pastor Bob, a plane just crashed in our back yard."

My automatic response was, "I'll be right there!"

Again, I had no concept of what direction the day was going to take, but ministry is most often trusting God to guide your path.

I headed toward Lacey's home after stopping to check on Evelyn Gibson, an 84-year-old widow, legally blind, who also lived on the parcel of land where Flight 93 ended.

But as I attempted to drive up Skyline Drive, unaware that the crash occurred within site of the road, I was stopped by a fire policeman and asked to go down to the site to give last rites to those who died or were dying. He had obviously not been to the site because the destruction to the bodies of the heroes on the flight was beyond that possibility.

I returned to my office briefly to call and check on more folks, but phone service was interrupted. So I went to speak with a group of teenagers gathered on the main corner in town. I asked how they were doing, and one asked whether this was World War III, and another asked if it was the end of the world. I assured them that indeed, I didn't know what happened. I did impress upon them, however, that the crash that occurred here was unintended. A third youth prophetically exclaimed, "Well, life sure won't be the same anymore!"

Up to that point, I still had not called to let my wife Pam and son Josh know that I was well.

That evening I was among local clergy who gathered for an evening prayer service. Nearly half of the residents in Shanksville attended that service, which centered on prayers for peace and comfort in the midst of uncertainty and fear. I talked with a few folks after the service, and then headed home, where I talked only briefly with my family as the events of the day began to take a toll, and I was shutting down. My introversion was showing.

Since the tragic end of Flight 93, I have served on the task force to plan and develop the national memorial. Along with my wife, I serve as an ambassador at the site to help inform people about the events of that day there at this site.

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