BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Monday marks 16 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and many are still impacted by the events of that day.
Pastor Robin Ray of Bridgeport Presbyterian Church is one of those individuals. The events of that day have influenced her both in her person life and as a pastor.
Ray was serving at her home church, First Presbyterian of Hamilton Square, outside of Trenton, New Jersey, at the time of 9/11, and she recalls a different atmosphere in the church that following Sunday.
“I remember the churches being packed that Sunday; people that hadn’t been in church for years. I had in my Sunday School class, kids who were still in shock,” she said. “None of us could imagine that this could happen on our home soil.”
Ray worked mostly with the children of the church at that time, in a day when young American children were not yet familiar with terroristic attacks.
“We didn’t have that many school shootings at that point, so they really didn’t know anything like this,” she said. “Everything was always overseas, and I think it was the first touch of reality — for all of us, really, not just for them — that something of this magnitude could happen here in the United States too.”
For many of the children, it was a sense of denial and disbelief that it was real.
“Especially the older ones, the high schoolers that were more aware. They had a lot of grief and a lot of fear of what the future had in place for them,” Ray said. “The little kids in the church, they just knew that something really bad happened.”
It wasn’t much easier for the adults.
Thousands of people from that area of New Jersey commute into New York for work each day, leaving numerous families of Ray’s community restless to hear if their loved ones were still alive.
“I remember hugging in the streets as you found out people were safe,” she said. “I had family members who were not in the Twin Towers but close by, and they had to walk for miles to get home to find some kind of transportation.”
However, not all families were as lucky.
“My home church, the Hamilton church, we got in contact (with our members). Everybody had made it home or made it to safety,” Ray said. “Then in my Morrisville church, there was one person that was in the Twin Towers. He was above the fire, and he did not make it out.”
That left Ray with a heavy heart, and she took on the sadness of others as they turned to her for guidance and support.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pretty good prayer, but I probably prayed more during that time, just for God to ease the heaviness in my heart,” she said.
Some members of the church had a harder time carrying that heaviness.
“One man in that church actually tried to commit suicide a couple months after everything because his office in New York City was near the Cathedral where all the firemen and the policemen were having funerals,” Ray said. “Every day they would go by his office with the bagpipes playing. Hearing that day after day was a constant reminder, and all of that got to be too much for him.
“Another member of my church worked near the World Trade Center, and he actually saw people jumping to their death,” she added. “I remember months and months later, him waking up screaming at night about it. That’s something that I’m sure is still bothering him today.”
Ray said she cried for months after Sept. 11, as the victim’s faces continued to fill the local newspapers, as well as the stories of their families.
Todd Beamer, whose last words were “Let’s Roll” as he and the other passengers of Flight 93 fought back against their hijackers, was from the nearby town of Cranbury.
“Our particular area wasn’t as hard hit as some of the communities that were closer to New York City,” she said. “I don’t remember how many we lost in our area that day, but we lost quite a few.”
In the face of that loss, many turned to the church and their faith.
“We had a fuller attendance for several weeks afterwards,” Ray said. “We opened our church more for prayer, where we usually just did that for lent. We had pastors and deacons at the church if somebody needed someone to pray with them or talk with them.
“And it wasn’t just for our members, it was for anyone in the community,” she said.
In time, those numbers dwindled, but people’s faith was still affected, whether by strengthening it or questioning it.
“I think it went all over the map. Some people asked how God could let something like this happen. Some people were angry. Some people, I think, their faith was strengthened for a little while as they’re coming to church and praying,” Ray said. “The long term effects? I’m not sure if there were any, positive or negative, as far as people’s faith goes.”