Interview with Jim Phegley
Jim Phegley was sitting in the barber’s chair when he heard that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City. With half-shorn hair, he saw another airliner strike the second tower and went right to work doing what he does best, ministering to people in his church. Jim has been senior minister of Glen Cove (New York) Christian Church for 27 years. The church on Long Island became a place of solace on the evening of September 11, 2001, and continued as a place of ministry outreach after that. Jim’s heart for the people of New York was evident as he worked through this very difficult time of ministry. And, by the way, his haircut eventually was completed.
How did 9/11/01 unfold for you?
The morning of 9/11 I was getting my hair cut when the owner of a tavern next door ran in and said, “Did you see that an airplane just hit one of the twin towers?” The barber stopped cutting my hair and we went next door to the tavern and watched on television as the second plane hit the second tower. Until that point we thought maybe it was an accident, but when we saw that we knew it was more ominous.
How did you respond?
I left immediately—I didn’t even finish my haircut—so I could go back to the church and start calling family members of people I knew who worked in that area. Initially no one had any information. We had one member who worked in Building 5 [of the World Trade Center complex] whose wife had not heard from him yet. We had another member who worked in construction who had taken a subway into the World Trade Center and was going to transfer to another subway, and no one had heard from him either.
We really didn’t have information on any of the people who were working in that area because many people had to walk across the bridges to get home and cell phones weren’t working. So we didn’t get information whether they made it out safely until later that night. But thank God, all of our church members and their families came home safely.
How did your world change after 9/11?
I wouldn’t say our world changed, but the ability to do ministry changed. It seemed as though after 9/11 people were much more open to talking about spirituality in general.
Were members of the church affected directly by the attack?
We had three families in the church who were directly affected. No one was killed from our congregation, but we had people who worked in that area who were right there as the towers came down. Because they worked there they had many contacts and knew people who died.
How did the church meet the spiritual needs of people that day?
Our church and most places of worship stayed open that evening to pray and support each other—just to be there for each other. We didn’t really have a service; we opened the doors and it was almost spontaneous. People just came in. A lot of people were crying. People came to the front of the church and prayed. Our church uses contemporary worship, but people spontaneously broke into older hymns or songs they remembered from their childhood. Every once in awhile I would stand in the front and read a psalm. There was really nothing you could say. It was just comforting to be with each other and to read from the Psalms that God would be with us and he was not going to forsake us no matter what was happening.
How did the church respond as time went on?
Southeast Christian Church in Louisville gave quite a bit of money for us to distribute to the community. Here in Glen Cove we had close to $30,000 to distribute to people who were affected. I can’t remember exactly how many families we were able to help, but it was . . . more than 20 in one way or another. We tried to make gifts of at least $1,000, depending on the need. Everybody we helped was deeply appreciative.
Do you recall some specific ways the church helped?
There was a man who lost his income because his barbershop was destroyed and his customers were gone. Another family in the church had a young man who was watching as the first tower came down and ran as the second tower came down. The very next week he was scheduled to donate a kidney to his sister, but now he was out of work. We were able to help him as he donated the kidney to his sister. Some people lost the main providers for their family and we were able to write checks immediately rather than have them [wait for assistance] from the government.
Was the church able to help with direct ministry support?
Other than distribution of the checks, not really. We kept getting local reports that “we have more help than we need, so don’t come down.”Even first responders were told they had more help than they needed. We were told anyone else who comes is going to be in the way. They had more supplies than they could use because people responded in such a dramatic way.
So the best thing people could do was give money?
That’s what I would say. That’s where the need was. People didn’t have jobs anymore or family members who could provide for them. Only so many old pairs of jeans are needed.
Did the community respond to the church’s outreach?
I think it was instrumental in opening doors for us to do more work in the community. We are a small church and I had been here for about 15 years, but people saw we were able to help individuals and organizations with no strings attached. We were able to give a donation to a local mental health clinic that was providing services to people in the community. All of these things opened doors for us and gave us a new level of respect in the community. For some it was difficult to accept that there was a church that would help them with no strings attached.
Did you have any anti-Christian reactions to the church’s involvement?
None at all. There was no negative response whatsoever. The local government was very appreciative of what we were doing and the nonprofit organizations were also very appreciative.
Was there any lasting impact to the spiritual fervor that occurred just after 9/11?
I don’t know that there was a specific long-term impact. Both services were completely filled the Sunday immediately following 9/11. We never saw some of those people again. On the first anniversary of 9/11 a local community hospital asked me to lead a service, so I was able to speak to a couple hundred hospital employees. So while there was no direct, dramatic impact that I know of, all these things helped to give a level of respectability to the church that I don’t think we had before.
Do people still bear the scars of 9/11, or have they moved past it?
I wouldn’t say they have moved past it. It has become a part of who we are as New Yorkers. In my opinion it changed the culture of New York. One of the most difficult aspects of ministering in New York is New Yorkers are different than citizens of any other city in the country (and I’ve lived in other major cities). Before 9/11, New Yorkers were distinctively different—you didn’t talk to people on the streets. You kind of looked the other way when people approached you. There was very little eye contact on the subway. That’s changed since 9/11. People are much more open. They talk to one another on the street. They don’t avoid eye contact. And, they’re much more willing to talk about faith and spirituality. One of the biggest differences is, before 9/11 there was a kind of indifference toward police officers and firefighters, and now there’s almost a camaraderie to anyone who is perceived as a first responder.
Before 9/11, was there ambivalence about evil?
I think so. There was an attitude that evil was something that might happen somewhere, but not here. After 9/11, of course, people came to realize evil can manifest itself any place—even where they live.
Do you think your approach to ministry would have changed if the event had been a natural disaster?
I don’t know that my ministry would change, but the way I dealt with the event was greatly different. I felt an overwhelming need in my first sermon, and subsequent sermons after 9/11, to assure people this was not God’s will, but this was men exercising their free will in direct violation of the way God has told us to live. In some ways a natural disaster is more difficult to explain.
What did you learn that would help you be better prepared to minister in the midst of another disaster?
I don’t think you can ever be ready for something like 9/11. I believe the most important thing we did, or that anybody could do, is to respond with the truth and love of Christ.
Brad Dupray is president of Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.