When the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial was closed to the public this summer because of COVID-19 restrictions, Skip Greene drove as close as he could to the gate.
Greene, a longtime member of First Baptist Church of Boone, wanted to see the place where he served 20 years ago, coordinating volunteer teams that provided meals to first responders immediately following the September 11 attacks.
He introduced himself to an officer who approached him.
“Were you with the North Carolina feeding kitchen?” the officer asked. “I ate meals there.”
He never made it to the actual memorial, but Greene cherished a memory with someone who benefited from Baptists on Mission‘s (BOM) relief efforts two decades earlier.
Greene, who owns a construction company in Boone, served as the state’s disaster relief volunteer coordinator in 2001. He recently spoke to the Biblical Recorder about what he remembers from that time.
He was driving to work when he heard the news on the radio. Greene pulled over, thinking he misheard the reporter. A friend who was nearby joined him, and they continued listening for about two hours, in shock.
Greene quickly got in touch with Gaylon Moss, then disaster relief director for BOM (formerly called N.C. Baptist Men), who was waiting for direction from the North American Mission Board. Greene began alerting trained volunteers about the possibility of a relief response.
In the meantime, he went to the church for a prayer gathering, where he ran into a retired hospital chaplain. He had no disaster relief training but told Greene, “If there’s anything you think I can do, I’d love to go with you.”
The chaplain would later be part of what Greene described as an “untold story at the Pentagon.”
“He was a real inspiration,” Greene said, “and meshed with the chaplains at the Pentagon and allowed us to get into the Pentagon to take food. … He opened doors, being a chaplain and working with the military chaplains, that probably would not have opened.”
On the evening of September 11, Greene received a call about the Red Cross requesting a feeding unit in the south parking lot of the Pentagon. A group of volunteers from western North Carolina drove to Greensboro to meet another group from Charlotte that had the feeding unit and support truck. They then headed to Durham, where Moss was waiting. They prayed, drove north and arrived in Washington D.C. by 8 a.m. on Sept. 12.
The team served their first meals around 2 p.m. Teams stayed for four to five days and were in rotation for about three weeks.
BOM operated a 24-hour kitchen, next to other organizations providing meals, haircuts, massages, counseling and other services. Hundreds of North Carolina Baptists served a total of about 60,000 meals to rescue workers, FBI agents and military personnel over five weeks.
Because Greene’s responsibilities focused on logistics, he had more flexibility to spend time with people outside the meal line rush. He remembered the emotions of first responders, many of whom took a meal and sat in silence.
He remembered a fireman who walked over to the feeding unit and, without entering the line, sat down, leaning on a tire of the truck. Greene placed a meal down and sat beside him.
“We could both see the Pentagon, looking straight at it, smoke coming out of it,” Greene recalled. “There was not a word shared, but we were both in tears. … He sat there probably 30 minutes, put his jacket on, then you saw him join his buddies back to the fire.
“There was a lot of non-verbal ministry going on at the Pentagon.”
Tom Beam, now BOM’s disaster relief coordinator, then served as director of Camp Caraway for Boys. He joined the efforts at the Pentagon two weeks later as a kitchen site coordinator.
For security reasons, volunteers could only make small talk with those they served. They couldn’t ask specific questions, but Beam sensed that many sought spiritual direction.
“People were trying to figure out how can they make sense of our place after the disaster,” he said.
BOM had placed small Bibles on the tables, and Beam recalled one man sitting by himself who looked around, unzipped his jacket and snuck a Bible in his pocket.
“It’s almost like he didn’t want anyone to see him do that – I don’t know – but that said to me that he was looking for something, maybe when he was off duty, for comfort.”
A God-given mission
For Beam, there was anger and confusion in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks – in himself and, he observed, in others. That set the response apart from other disaster relief efforts he’s been a part of, but it clarified an aspect of what God calls His people to do, he said.
“The Lord calls us to serve Him wherever we find ourselves, and whether it’s manmade or natural disasters, we should still get beyond ourselves and help those in need.”
Greene, too, reflected on how God helped the teams accomplish the task He gave. Because they left so soon, Greene didn’t have a chance to follow early news coverage and commentary.
“We were sort of protected from that … I didn’t sit in front of that TV and watch everything happen,” Greene said. “God had given us a mission, given us a challenge to go and serve. It was only after we got back that that emotion hit me … God protected us and allowed us to focus on what He was calling us to do during those days rather than looking at the videos.”
Richard Brunson, current BOM executive director, often remembers the September 11 response when facing a disaster relief challenge. It was, like others, an invitation to trust God.
“In every disaster, what’s the door that God wants us to go through? And then we’ve got to be willing to go through it, even when there are unknowns and even when there are risks,” Brunson said.
Brunson recalled the uncertainty and fears of another attack, and commended those who went to the Pentagon and Ground Zero.
“Those volunteers like Skip [Greene] and his team were willing to go that day, to leave, to pack up, to leave family … when you go from 9/11 to COVID and hurricanes and tornadoes and fires – there’s so many different ways people are hurting, and if we’re willing to go through open doors, God can be glorified.”
About four weeks after September 11, BOM set up a site in New York City to serve volunteers who were cleaning apartments around Ground Zero. They provided showers, meals and logistical support. Recognizing a need for laundry services, BOM built the first laundry unit to send to the site to serve volunteers.
More than 600 N.C. Baptists served in New York City throughout a long-term response that lasted about six months.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, Brunson accepted on behalf of BOM one of four crosses made out of limestone debris from the Pentagon crash site. The U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains presented it “to the North Carolina Baptists in grateful appreciation for your ministry to the Pentagon after the terrorist attack on 9-11-2001,” as inscribed below the cross.
Three other crosses went to the Washington National Cathedral, the Flight 93 memorial in Stoystown, Penn., and St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City. The fourth is at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina office in Cary.