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Five years ago a group of terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field. The hijackers did not intend to spark an outpouring of love and generosity that would strengthen the Christian church and build up God’s kingdom. But that’s exactly what happened.

After North Americans watched the World Trade Center towers collapse, they reached into their wallets and donated to charities in record numbers. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) benefited from this generosity, receiving almost $1.2 million.

“At one point, we sent out a postcard thanking people for their gifts and telling them that we had received enough money,” CRWRC media spokesperson Beth DeGraff noted. “People responded by sending that postcard back with even more donations. They were that enthusiastic about giving.”

CRWRC typically responds to disasters by clearing debris, assessing needs, rebuilding homes, and strengthening the ability of local communities to meet people’s needs. But in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, many of the traditional programs were not appropriate.

Instead CRWRC helped set up a local response team to manage aid requests and direct people to churches and organizations that could meet their needs. It rented an office and hired two people to staff this new Christian Reformed Response Team.

CRWRC also partnered with CRC Chaplaincy Ministries to provide trauma counseling and to support local pastors overwhelmed by the level of need.

Helping the Helpers

“Siebert Van Houten [former director of CRC Chaplaincy Ministries in Canada] took the lead and contacted many of the chaplains, both active and retired, to see if they were able to assist and go to New York and New Jersey,” said Herm Keizer, director of Chaplaincy Ministries.

“Several chaplains traveled to these areas in early December as part of the initial response. Some of our military chaplains were also active in Washington, D.C., and in the greater New York area.”

The chaplains provided resources for pastors to use in trauma counseling with people in their churches and communities. They also held a retreat that offered support and spiritual renewal to pastors stretched too thin in the weeks after the disaster.

This was the first time CRWRC included pastoral care in its relief efforts. Today it is becoming a regular part of how the agency responds to disasters.

Reaching Out to Communities

Around the world, CRWRC specializes in helping churches reach out to their communities and work for holistic change. After 9-11 there was a need for this type of ministry in the New York area.

“Following the disaster in New York City, the Christian Reformed churches in the area were having a hard time identifying people affected by the disaster,” explained Al Santino, CRWRC’s church and community consultant for the northeastern United States. “They did not know the people in their neighborhoods and had a limited means of connecting with those who were affected.”

To address the need, CRWRC started “Project Deploy”—an initiative to help New York area churches engage people in their neighborhoods in order to address needs. This included the need to provide support to families that had lost a loved one in the 9-11 attacks. But it also included programs to teach English as a second language, help with immigration processing, teach people computer and finance skills, and help church members pray for and reach out to their communities.

“September 11 had an especially magnifying effect on inner-city communities,” Santino said. “Issues of fear, stress, loss of jobs, family instability, and immigrant struggles to survive were all heightened. Nine CRC churches joined Project Deploy in an effort to work with, not just in, their communities to address these needs.”

By providing training, start-up grants, and a maximum of five years of salary support, CRWRC helped churches get to know their neighbors, pray for their communities, and design programs that would really make a difference. Santino provides the churches with ongoing support and advice as the programs are implemented.

Churches Put Money to Work

New Horizons Christian Reformed Church in Clifton, N.J., used its Project Deploy grant to start an ESL (English as a Second Language) program in a local public school.

When the church started the ESL program, the school principal warned them that attendance would likely be low. He explained that guitar, soccer, and basketball classes had been offered in the past and no one had attended.

“The Sunday before class started, I requested the congregation of New Horizons for three people to pray, and eight people offered their prayers,” explained Dinorah Avila, Project Deploy coordinator for New Horizons.

“On the first day, when the teacher and I arrived at the school, five students were waiting for us. We started the registration. Some minutes later we had 10,

then 15, then 25, and eventually a full class of 40 students! The following week people kept calling and asking to be enrolled, so we received permission to have a second class.”

Today New Horizons is sponsoring three ESL classes for more than 80 students. As part of the program, they invite community associations, business people, churches, and neighbors to donate 30 minutes per class to help the students practice their conversation skills. This has helped to build relationships and bring the community together.

Prayer Walking

In Haledon, N.J., Bridgeway Community Church used its Project Deploy grant to start a prayer-walking ministry. Every day one of three teams gets together and walks the streets of the neighborhood around the church. As they walk they pray for the neighborhood, its residents, and the issues that they face.

This ministry improved the image of Bridgeway in its community and also sparked some neighborhood improvements.

“One group of prayer walkers had the opportunity to talk with one of the school crossing guards,” reported Kim Fluit, Project Deploy coordinator for Bridgeway. “He is a neighbor and could not understand what these two men were doing walking at 7 a.m., even in the bitter cold of winter. He now looks for the prayer walking team each morning.

“A police officer also stopped them as they were walking past the school. When they explained what they were doing, his attitude immediately changed, and he said he had heard about the good things the church was doing.”

“Another area of Haledon had three homes that were run down,” Fluit added. “After several months of prayer walking, each home now has a dumpster on the property and they are cleaning up the area.

“And St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was closing its doors after years of declining membership. After praying for the church, there was news that a Kenyan church has inquired about purchasing the property. The church has a heart for Haledon and wants to be a community church.”

Building Lasting Relationships

In all, Project Deploy is helping more than 500 families in nine neighborhoods and is improving the relationship between churches and their communities. This has helped prepare churches and communities for future crises.

“When a church knows and is known in the community as a community of care and a place to get help, then when a disaster hits in the future, [it] is strategically ready and able to respond to immediate needs,” explains Jay VanGronigen, CRWRC’s team leader for North America.

“Prior to 9-11 most of these churches were not looking for needs in their communities, nor were they seeing the assets in their neighborhoods that could be developed for their neighbors’ good. Now they are more strategically placed and able to help their neighbors in the future.”

This is a great example of how God, working through the church, can take an act of hate and terrorism and use it to share his love and build up his kingdom.

Kristen DeRoo VanderBerg is a senior writer with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.

Fast Facts about the CRC’s 9-11 Response

CRWRC received just under $1.2 million in response to 9-11. To date, it has spent all but $238,000 of these funds and plans to exhaust the fund in the next couple of years.

In the days immediately following 9-11, CRWRC helped churches to stay open and be available for prayer. It also helped to provide chaplaincy services, support for pastors, and connections to trauma counseling.

Nine Christian Reformed churches are currently participating in Project Deploy. They include the following:

  • New City Kids Church (Jersey City, N.J.)
  • New Horizons CRC (Clifton/Passaic, N.J.)
  • New Life Ministries (Midland Park, N.J.)
  • Madison Crossroads (Paterson, N.J.)
  • Jersey City Mission (Jersey City, N.J.)
  • Filipino CRC (Jersey City, N.J.)
  • Bridgeway Community Church (Haledon, N.J.), which has started New Hope Community Ministries
  • Apoyo Community Center (Prospect Park, N.J.)
  • East-West Church of New York (Flushing, N.Y.)

Other churches in Classis Hudson-Hackensack are participating in training with the expectation of three new start-ups this year.

To find out how your church can start a Community Outreach/Transformation program, order Communities First materials by calling 1-800-333-8300.

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