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ANSWERING THE CALL <br> AFTER SEPT. 11, A NEED TO OFFER SPIRITUAL COMFORT AND SUPPORT

Along with the horror and sadness they felt after the terrorist attacks, some local men and women felt something else - a call from God to take care of His people.

"This wasn't something I wanted to do, but I really felt God leading me," said Sister Mary Johnice, CSSF, who runs the Response to Love Center on Buffalo's East Side.

With no official credentials, she went to New York City, expecting to be led where she was needed. "I was just stepping out in faith," said Sister Johnice. "I wanted to be there as an ambassador of peace."

While riding the New York subway, she met an Episcopalian priest from St. Paul's Chapel, nicknamed "The Little Church That Could" because it survived when little else did.

"I was just trying to get as close as possible, even if only to smell it," said Sister Johnice. Her new friend got her past the barricades at ground zero, into the rawest part of the wound.

Her task, from 8 at night until 6:30 the next morning, for two nights, was to take cold drinks to rescue workers. But with each person, she found the possibility of a deeper connection.

As bodies were being reverently carried out, she stood alongside others. She embraced a fireman who cleaned debris from her shoes, reminding him that Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples. She prayed with a doctor who asked for her prayers.

"It was the most beautiful experience of my life," said Sister Johnice. "It taught me the real living presence of God. God was alive. Ground zero became holy ground. God was alive."

Promoting healing

Always ready for an emergency call, the Rev. Donald Weaver and his wife, Barbara, keep a suitcase packed with Play-Doh, comfort dolls and other supplies. Ironically, the Saturday before Sept. 11, they had been at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport for a simulated response to a terrorist attack.

Three days after the disaster, this Town of Tonawanda couple flew to New York under the sponsorship of the Church of the Brethren and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Also on the team were: the Rev. James Brewster of the United Methodist Church in the City of Tonawanda; Judy Toone of Kenmore United Methodist Church; and the Rev. Sheila Truesdell of the United Theological Seminary, which has a branch in South Buffalo.

For part of their 24-day stint, the Weavers were stationed in the day care center located at Pier 94. The Family Assistance Center has become a "one stop shopping" space where victims fill out paperwork and come for counseling under a welcoming white tent.

On their busiest day, the Weavers - who sit on the floor to play with youngsters - saw nearly 100 children. Among them were children who had witnessed people jumping from the buildings and one girl whose nightmare is that she loses her younger brother in the rubble.

Their mission was to use music, art, books and play to promote healing, said Barbara Weaver, who has written an internationally used manual on helping children cope, which now includes an addendum on terrorism.

Getting back to normal is very helpful, the couple said.

"You try to help people get their routine back," said Weaver. "You build on doing one thing and doing it well, even something like sending them home to clean their oven."

When routines were thrown into chaos and not reestablished after Hurricane Andrew, for example, the suicide rate for children rose considerably after a time.

What they witnessed, Weaver said, is "people hungry for hope."

In a spontaneous gathering, a few young adults who stood in front of a firehouse asked them to lead the Lord's Prayer. Before it was over, the circle had grown to 18 or 20, Weaver said.

"They weren't churchy people, but they were people of faith," he said. "They were calling up their roots of faith. There's is so much power in the human spirit."

They witnessed that spirit from two people who came from Oklahoma City with the teddy bears that had been displayed on a wall there.

"Their message was, "I am a survivor and you will be, too,' " said Barbara Weaver.

The Weavers, who once had 45 people in their home during the Wellsville flood and who have comforted others in Columbine, Bosnia and Oklahoma City, say they've been shaped by the Gospel message of living for others.

"In Matthew, there's the question, "When did you see me?' and, if we feel that, we have to live it in a way that responds," said Weaver.

"No models for this'

Joann M. Hale of Grand Island, a Love Canal activist and volunteer with the National Council of Churches, knows the protocol for disaster relief. She should, after 13 years of responding to mudslides, floods, ice storms, hurricanes and tornadoes throughout the Northeast and Puerto Rico.

Nothing, however, prepared her for Sept. 11.

"There is no comparison, none, none," said Hale, who was in New York for three weeks, home for a weeklong respite and was scheduled for future stints.

"There are no models for this," said Hale, who immediately bought plane, bus and train tickets so that, one way or another, she'd get to New York. "When Hurricane Andrew happened, it produced jobs. With this, we've lost jobs. We're writing the models."

One of her jobs was to mobilize clergy, from Manhattan and elsewhere, to provide spiritual counseling and the sad task of presiding at funerals.

But other jobs came her way.

Because she was wearing identification tags for Church World Services Disaster and FEMA, she was stopped constantly.

"People stop you in the street thinking you have answers," Hale said.

She gave some direction to 10 firefighters who had come from Jackson, Miss., to help. In a restaurant, she conversed with a young man from Chicago, whose firm provides structural support to shaky buildings. She listened, as he related in stunned disbelief what he had seen while crawling through what had become a mass grave. She sat with a rabbi, who held his face in his hands as he sobbed.

"They pour their hearts out to you," said Hale. "There was a helplessness I felt. I wish I had been able to take their hurt and memories away and let them go back to a normal life."

In her second round, Hale will help undocumented workers from Mexico, Haiti, China and other countries, many of whom were employees at World Trade Center restaurants and who now are left without resources.

"The church is there to catch the unmet needs," she said. "Nobody is preached to, but if they need pastoral care it's there."

Sister Johnice will talk about her experiences at a 4 p.m. Mass today and at 11 a.m. Sunday at St. Adalbert's Basilica, 212 Stanislaus St.

e-mail pvoell@buffnews.com

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