Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain—Part 3

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Road to Recovery: Mike MacIntosh Remembers

Story by Carmel Flippen

This is the final part of a series on the 9/11 recollections of Pastor Mike MacIntosh, founding pastor of Calvary Chapel-affiliate Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego, CA. Follow Mike’s story about his time as a Ground Zero chaplain: The View from Ground Zero (Part 1) and Rescuing the Rescuers (Part 2).

“The evening was warm,” remembered Pastor Mike MacIntosh, “and the bright emergency lights made me forget it was night. [Our spiritual care unit] had just prayed with a group of rescue workers who’d brought some bodies out of the rubble and were sadly watching the ambulance head off towards the morgue. The construction and rescue workers replaced their hard hats and went back to work.”

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Based on his experiences after 9/11, Calvary Chapel Pastor Mike MacIntosh wrote the book When Your World Falls Apart: Life Lessons from a Ground Zero Chaplain. Background photo by Tom Price

One week after 9/11, the focus had moved from rescue to recovery. “The rubble looked much like it had the week before,” he reflected. “Even though thousands of man-hours were spent moving debris, the task looked like it could go on forever.” As awful as the early days had been, at least the hope of survivors helped fuel searchers’ efforts. With the last survivor having been pulled from the rubble 27 hours after the towers’ collapse,* that hope had long since faded out. Caught in this endless parade of death, the workers looked as if all the weight of that insurmountable pile was carried on their shoulders.

“My attention was drawn to the area we’d just left,” Mike continued. “Three people remained there; they looked like they needed help. As I took my first steps toward them, I prayed for the right words.”

These Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workers’ job was to transport remains between the pile and a waiting ambulance. Mike explained, “Over the last two hours I had noticed this group staring at the pile as if dazed, their expressions stoic and uncommunicative. I was concerned that everything might finally be getting to them, and they were about to lose it.”

Though the man was not ready to talk, Mike related, “soon after I arrived and introduced myself, one of the women was pouring her heart out. She was concerned about the future, fretting over the possibility of future terrorist attacks, and wondering aloud if her children would live to see a happy life. A lot went on behind those glazed eyes.

“Not long after I started talking to her, tears began to flow. Soon thereafter, all three wanted to pray and find peace in their lives. Each realized that the long hours and the brutality of this most abnormal of situations had tested their inner strength beyond any normal capacities. They understood they were running on empty and it was this exhaustion that caused them to stare numbly off into space. Now a life preserver of hope had been thrown into their desperate waters; they grabbed hold and allowed it to pull them to shore.”


Lifeline of Faith

In 2 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul details the extensive trauma he endured for the Gospel’s sake:

From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness —besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28

“You might think Paul would end up a ‘basket case’ with all the pressure on him,” Mike suggested. “As it turned out, the opposite was true. He found peace in the midst of those struggles because he always trusted God to help him. He always recovered from his collapsing world; he was always rescued from his Ground Zeros. You may say, ‘Well, of course he did! He was an apostle and had special privileges common folk like us don’t have.’ Actually, he had so much help because he loved, trusted and had faith in God. It’s this faith that will get you up and moving [after a Ground Zero event]. The only way this faith will grow is if you actively work to grow it. You need to read your Bible daily and let its warm glow of love fill every broken area of your soul.”

No matter what tragedy is weighing on your shoulders today, “God wants you to have the necessary faith to move forward with your life,” declared Mike. “When problems outweigh the joy of living, it does not mean it is time to give up—it means it’s time to let God do what He does best. He is the one to bring closure and let things begin new and fresh in your life.”


Healing Joy

When Mike began writing about his experiences at Ground Zero, “I relived the experiences my words described,” he said. “In writing about the rubble, I saw it again. Writing about the smells, I smelled them again. I have remembered some of the ugliest scenes of my life—the remains unearthed at ‘the pile,’ the work at the morgue. The grief I saw and heard in hundreds of family members at the Family Assistance Center became part of me again. I’ve continuously revisited the gaunt, tired, yet sternly committed faces of hundreds of rescue workers—construction workers, police officers, firefighters. My heart has been wrenched over and over as mere words have made the experiences all so terribly real for me again.”

When the memories became overwhelming, he found himself identifying with Psalm 73:16: When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me. As he reached out to God in his pain, however, God brought him to the next verse (17): Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end.

Mike especially found sanctuary through Jesus’ response, in Matthew 28:1-9, to the greatest trauma any human has ever endured: His crucifixion, death, and complete separation from God when He took all of humanity’s sin on Himself. Mike reflected, “I am so glad that Jesus didn’t come from the tomb and say to the women there, ‘The grave is so cold and dark and I was really frightened’ or ‘I just don’t know what to say, I am so shook from my experience with death.’ No, not at all—He did not even dwell on the subject of death or the act of dying or the pain and suffering that accompanied His crucifixion. Instead He gave us all the hope we will ever need to move forward in our lives and towards our goal of reaching heaven in His name: ‘Rejoice, be glad!’

“Closure is very important when we have received a jolt to our lives such as a Ground Zero experience. You may view an experience as completely negative, and rightfully so in most cases. However, with a little scriptural insight you can see that the spirit of joy is not only acceptable—joy has tremendous healing powers which come with it.”

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22, ESV

Yet Jesus offers far more than healing from past pain. “The Bible says that death is something that everyone has feared, and we all have been held in bondage by this fear,” Mike preached. “In Hebrews 2:15 we read that one of the things that Jesus came to earth to do was, release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

“Jesus makes it indelibly clear that He is the way to heaven and that it is through Him that we get to the Father. So to begin the journey of closure and moving forward, we need to get onto the correct path and head in the correct direction. We begin by making sure Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Lord, because that means we surrender our lives to Him and He now leads us and is responsible for us. Savior, because that means He paid the price for our sins and God will now receive us into His kingdom because He has accepted Jesus as the perfect sacrifice.”

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Mike MacIntosh shares the Gospel at Festival of Life, a three-day outreach to Coachella Valley in Southern California. Photo by Mekaela Campos

Looking Forward

Two months after 9/11, Mike returned to New York City for a candlelight vigil at Ground Zero. Though the city was still healing, he was amazed at the transformation: its once-barren streets now packed with people; the emergency lighting replaced by blinking neon signs. Life moved forward.

Including Mike’s—but not unchanged, he clarified: “When recently asked, ‘Did Ground Zero change your life?’ I had to admit it did. As Lisa Beamer** assessed it, ‘It began a new era.’

“Today, I compare everything to Ground Zero. There are issues that before might have seemed huge, but now they just don’t seem to matter much. Compared to the collapse of these giant buildings and the loss of life, much of what I face every day has moved from the column marked ‘important’ to the one marked ‘distraction.’ Life has new meaning for me, time has a new perspective, and the future now seems like something I want to enjoy more than work towards.”

Whatever you may be facing, Mike assured, “God knows how much you need His tender touch and gentle words to bring you to a better place. God loves you, He has always loved you, and He will always love you.

“Take it from one weary traveler to another: God will take the shock of your collapsing world upon His shoulders. God will rescue you in your time of need. God will help you recover from your Ground Zero; He will bring emotional closure and help you ‘begin a new era.’”


*New York Magazine

**Lisa Beamer is the widow of Todd Beamer, who lost his life on 9/11 stopping a fourth flight from reaching its target. Lisa’s courage amidst her grief inspired many.


This article was drawn from Mike’s book When Your World Falls Apart: Life Lessons From a Ground Zero Chaplain. Quotations have been edited & condensed to fit this format.


All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

© 2021 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.