A test of his faith
It is a memory that haunts him still and yet, one year later, has made him stronger.
Toby Nelson has moved 3,000 miles from Ground Zero, from the faces of the relatives of loved ones lost a year ago today, the faces of people he counseled and comforted in the months following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
But memories of those faces, stories and the struggles of innocents whose lives were changed last Sept. 11 never fade, not even for a man who now preaches Sundays in a Nevada City church.
Nelson, who has spent the better part of 10 years crisscrossing the country as an interim Presbyterian minister, is suited to no other kind of work.
“The fact that I am here for a short time means I have to be diligent in accomplishing as much as I can in a limited amount of time,” said Nelson, 56, the son of a military man who moved his family constantly. “There is some satisfaction in solving problems and correcting unhealthy situations.”
While the 300-member congregation at Sierra Presbyterian Church on Ridge Road hardly qualifies as such, Nelson spent a lot of time correcting unhealthy situations immediately after the terrorist attacks while interim pastor at a church in Ringoes, N.J., 11/2 hours west of New York City.
And though he didn’t lose any of his 200-member congregation, Nelson said he was fueled by an insatiable desire to help as soon as he saw the towers fall.
Within a day of the tragedy, Nelson, encouraged by Judy, his wife of 34 years, jumped on a rescue squad truck and headed to the site of the fallen towers.
“My wife wasn’t too happy to see me go, but she knew I needed to,” said Nelson, who has also preached in San Jose and Arizona.
Within two days, Nelson put on his collar and began counseling relatives of the missing and dead at the Family Assistance Center, a building on piers near the Twin Towers.
For several months, Nelson counseled a woman married less than a year who lost her husband on the 10th floor of one of the towers, a Muslim who lost a brother, even a father who talked to his son on the telephone seconds after one of the planes slammed into the World Trade Center.
As the father watched a plane hit a tower, his son said, “Dad, I don’t think I’m going to make it out of here.”
Seconds later, with the father on the phone with his son as he watched television, the father saw the building tumble – and the phone line went dead.
In the building where Nelson worked, hundreds of posters of those missing and dead hung on the walls.
“I could picture my own son being on the wall,” said Nelson, whose only child is 30. “He wasn’t there, but he was just like these people. These bright, energetic people.”
“I often felt like I was doing a ministry of heaven in hell.”
It was hard to hang onto his beliefs, Nelson said.
“These events and stories were so traumatizing that I had to re examine my faith to see if it was true and relevant and applicable,” said Nelson.
He eventually suffered post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and required counseling.
Eventually, “I re-learned that even in the face of an evil act that God was still alive, and that he would overcome this act with good.”
Judy Nelson, a professional counselor, helped her husband heal as they talked about his days with the victims.
“I was really thankful that he was opening up to me. It created a deeper bond between us,” she said.
Once a week for seven months, Nelson drove from western New Jersey to the site. He donned a collar, respirator and overcoat to walk among the dead bodies, twisted metal and burned fuselage to spread the word to rescue workers. While difficult, there was a sense of optimism there, Nelson said.
“I know that my presence with them and my prayer gave them hope. They felt like they were able to do something positive.”
One day, rescue workers uncovered two steel beams in the shape of a cross. The symbol did more than lift spirits in such tragedy, Nelson said. “It gave a great sense of hope to the people, and all you needed to do was look at the cross to get your bearings.”
Nelson left Ground Zero in June. These days, he says he’s more prone to tears and wonders about the future of those he met.
“I would like to know what’s happening in their lives,” he said. Being at Ground Zero, “I saw the profound effect of having faith.”
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