Joan Newville, of Santa Maria, can still recall the graphic images even after two decades.
While living in Patterson, New York, Joan was speaking to friends in Brooklyn Heights on the telephone as they observed, first-hand, the tragic events of 9/11 unfold just across the East River. At the same time, Joan watched the news reports live on TV. Her friends were “horrified, falling to the ground”, Joan said.
In the weeks following the tragedy, Joan, camera in hand, helped document the experiences of those that witnessed 9/11. “Their descriptions were so vivid, later I felt like I was reliving it.” she said.
The native New Yorker was heartbroken to see so many in despair and longed to comfort others.
Joan found healing through her ministry as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sharing the Bible verse at Jeremiah 29:11 was like “wrapping a healing blanket” around herself and those with whom she spoke during that difficult time.
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 have 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, Florida. “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, Bibles 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.
Twenty years later, Joan continues to find comfort through her ministry.
“I try to focus on peace. No matter what people are going through, an illness, financial crisis, political turmoil, it is peace and calmness that everyone is seeking,” Joan said.
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.