It was 6:40 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1, when the dispatch call came out for all available police chaplains to stand ready: The 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis had collapsed and up to 60 cars had gone down with it at 6:05 p.m. As TV networks broadcast the tragedy, calls began to come in from all over the U.S. from families asking if anyone they knew were victims.
Although some chaplains responded immediately (with the Red Cross and Salvation Army) at the site of the collapsed bridge, the majority of us reported for pastoral care/crisis counseling the next morning. A family center for those seeking missing people was established at the Holiday Inn Metrodome near the accident site.
A chaplain was assigned to each family. Food and other necessary personal supplies also were provided. The support systems were put together incredibly fast and caring people from all over the Twin Cities showed up to help. It was a miracle.
Answers about the fate of those missing were slow to come since the site of the bridge collapse became a dangerous place for rescue workers to begin their efforts. Estimates were given, yet no one really knew how many people had perished.
A “ministry of presence” began to take shape, like Jesus visiting Bethany long ago to console Mary and Martha when their brother (and Jesus’ friend) Lazarus had died (John 11:1-44). “If only ...” began many conversations, as family and friends of potential victims attempted to understand something truly coincidental, truly unpredictable.
The ministry of presence that we chaplains brought didn’t seem adequate for those wanting detailed information and resolution. God, how we wished there were answers, but silence turned from minutes into hours into another day. The ministry of presence never seemed adequate but certainly was appreciated. Individuals and families gradually began to experience the close caring of one or two—and often more—people gathered with nothing more to offer than “presence.”
Chaplains, social workers, mental health professionals and law enforcement officials strove to offer strength in a time when families and friends felt very weak. President George W. Bush, like his wife Laura a day earlier, walked on the crumbled concrete and put words to the nation’s grief and solidarity.
I, for one, remained strong enough to support two families before, during and after the announcement of their loved one’s death. Yet when a young mom and her daughter showed up at the center with homemade cookies to give to a family they had never met but had seen interviewed on television, I teared up.
When answers can’t be had, a blessing can be experienced through others in a ministry of presence. In Matthew 1:23 we read, “and they shall name him (Jesus) Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’ ” He was. And he is.
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