Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Diane Coxe’s mind could not accept what her eyes were seeing.
Running late for her job at a law firm in the World Trade Center, Coxe had just emerged from a train station when a plane struck the North Tower.
“For a second, I thought, ‘Maybe they’re filming something,’” she said. “I didn’t think it was really happening.”
In the chaos that followed, Coxe only vaguely recalls making it home. Twenty years after 9/11, though, she’s never forgotten how she spent that night.
“I did a lot of crying and a lot of praying,” she said.
Relief came from reaching out to help others who were struggling as she was.
Sharing comforting words from the Bible “was like medicine for me,” said the Uniondale, New York, mother of two.
The ministry that she had shared in for years as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses took on a new role for her and many others.
“What I was telling my neighbors was sounding down my own hope for the future and helping me deal with my feelings,” she said.
Helping others has long been linked to better emotional well-being in psychology research. The book “The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others” describes “powerful” effects, even for helpers who’ve experienced trauma themselves.
Trauma was all too common among the many volunteers at Ground Zero. Roy Klingsporn, a Brooklynite who volunteered at Ground Zero nearly every day for two months, recalled on one occasion approaching a man who sat slouched in a golf cart near the site’s makeshift morgue.
“When I asked him how he was doing, he burst into tears,” said Klingsporn, now of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “He said, ‘I’m tired of picking up body parts.’”
Within days of the attacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses set up teams that spent hours each day in Lower Manhattan, Bible in hand, consoling everyone from the families of victims to first responders battling physical and emotional exhaustion. It was a work that changed how the organization approaches disasters, with an organized comfort ministry now being an integral part of its response to natural disasters and even the pandemic.
Recalling the gut-wrenching days he spent as one of those volunteers near the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers still stirs deep feelings in Robert Hendriks.
“It was very emotional and extremely difficult for me, but the faces of those I passed on the street said it all,” said Hendriks, now U.S. spokesman for the Witnesses. “They needed comfort, and the best thing I could give them was a hug and a scripture.”
For Brown “Butch” Payne, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, tore open old wounds, bringing back vivid wartime memories the Vietnam veteran had tried to forget.
From his East Village apartment, Payne recalled the crowds of frantic people streaming north from Lower Manhattan. “That sight stirred up a lot of emotions in me,” he said. “It shook me to the core.”
Payne found relief in rendering aid the best way he knew how.
“Sharing the Bible’s message of hope softened the blow for me,” he said.
Offering a shoulder to cry on brought Klingsporn comfort too.
“It was satisfying to be of help to my community,” he said.
Two decades later, Coxe continues to find comfort from reaching out — this time in talking with pandemic-stressed neighbors while coping with the death of her sister in February.
“With every trauma I’ve been through, the ministry has soothed my heart,” she said, although now doing so through letters and telephone calls instead of going door to door. Jehovah’s Witnesses paused their in-person preaching in response to the pandemic in March 2020.
Payne feels the same. In 2016, after 50 years of marriage, he lost his beloved wife to cancer. On days when his grief feels overwhelming, Payne writes heartfelt letters that lift his neighbors’ spirits — and his own. He shares scriptures and resources that have helped him, like articles on coping with trauma and loss on jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Encouraging others to look to the future helps me to do the same,” he said.
For information on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visit their website jw.org.