by Captain Stephen Carroll
It was a beautiful, clear morning. I was riding shotgun in a golf cart, placing signs at every tee and hole on one of the most beautiful country clubs in Rockland County, New York. This course was particularly known for its view of the NYC skyline. As we drove, I found myself thinking about how great I had it. Just two months following college graduation; I had an amazing wife, a sixth story condo, a great job as a Youth Pastor which, on this particular day, would require me to sit in the grass and watch the 7th hole while enjoying all the complimentary snacks I could consume over the next 10 hours.
However, our cart never made it as far as the 7th hole that day. By the 4th hole we watched every golf cart with a driver turn off the approved path and head straight for the edge of the course. Curiosity getting the best my Corps Officer (pastor), we followed the golf cart stampede. As we approached the near pile-up of golf carts, the city skyline came into view. The once clear view of Manhattan was quickly filling with smoke. We weren’t sure what had happened, but we knew it was big.
My new boss looked at me and said, “Time to get to work.” There would be no sitting in the grass for me. Over the next two and a half days; I ran a mobile feeding truck, poured water into the mouths of people just feet away from the bodies they were sorting, looked into the vacant stares of desperate family members, slept for 4 hours in a shelter next to survivors, and spent time as the de facto Protestant chaplain praying in tandem with a Catholic priest everytime a body was pulled from the wreckage.
15 years later, the thing that still impacts me the most are the conversations I had with grief stricken people whose faith had collapsed under the weight of such overwhelming evil. While the news wanted to point out the spike in church attendance and the unmatched volunteerism and generosity during the days following the attack, the conversations I had with people were not so encouraging.
“Why would God take my son?”
“How could God allow this?”
“There is no God!”
These were the kinds of things I heard.
The day after the attack, well known Christian leaders were calling this an act of divine punishment for our failure to be ‘Christian enough’ as a nation. When I heard these professional Christians being interviewed, it made me angry. None of them were with us, hacking from the dust, staring into the eyes of these broken people. They had no understanding of the evil around us! I’d like to have seen one of them look someone in the eye and say, “God caused all this death and destruction, killed your husband and friends to draw you closer to Him.”
During a quiet conversation with a mom looking for her son, I was asked the same question. I was giving her directions to the nearest hospital when she recognized my uniform and asked, “How can God do this to us?”
It was my turn. I had my answer ready. I was going to explain my understanding of an open God, one who did not stop evil because we were free. I would follow up by quoting my college professor and arguing that in order for God to be loving he cannot control or counter creaturely freedom. If I followed the road map I had created for myself, I would bring the conversation around to Christ’s sacrifice—maybe even invite her to become a Christian.
Something broke inside me in that moment. Time stood still. I encountered the divine. I looked this women in the eyes and as mine filled with tears all I managed to get out was, “God is right here with us. He is heartbroken. He didn’t want any of this to happen. And now he is suffering with us.”
God Is love. God created us to love. God gave us the freedom we need to really love. God calls us to love freely and to make loving decisions. When we make decisions that are unloving, the consequences are real and can be disastrous to those around us. But when we answer the call to love, we can be partners with God and change the world.
Captain Stephen Carroll serves alongside Wife Captain Delia Carroll together as Commanding Officers (pastors) of The Salvation Army Niagara Falls Citadel Corps. Captain Carroll has also been a frequent guest lecturer in Ohio Christian University’s Emergency Management Program.