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FDNY Chaplain Who Responded To The Deadly Bronx Fire Shares What She Learned Amidst The Loss

Photo: Stock photo from Shutterstock.com / Steve Sanchez Photos
FDNY fire truck in the dark, red lights flaring, firefighters in the background

These are my thoughts from Sunday, after arriving home from responding as a FDNY Chaplain at the tragic fire in the Bronx that, at last report, killed 17 people, including many children. 

This morning I preached a sermon on the baptism of Jesus.

The summary would be that God becomes human in Jesus and therefore intimately knows what it means to be fully human — the joy and the pain. And that when it comes to the awfulness of life, I don’t believe God allows it to happen, but I am confident that God is right there present with each of us in the midst of it.

Just after I finished, I started getting text alerts about a fire in the Bronx. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t have a good feel to it. I looked at my wife, Jen, as she finished the long prayer and pointed to my phone. She looked at me,waved for me to get going, then said, “I've got the rest of the service.”

The fire was bad. I didn’t know the exact number of people who died at that point, but I know it was more than any fire in NYC in the past 30 years.

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As I drove home in silence, I reflected on my sermon and how it felt so much easier to preach that incarnational/Emmanuel/God-with-us stuff before the fire than it would after such an awful event. I wondered if my preaching could hold up when put to such a test.

Part of me wonders where God was today.

Was God with those kids as they tried to get out? Or with their parents? Why would a good, loving God allow this to happen?

 photo courtesy of Greenpoint Reformed Church

Omy way home, I stopped by the dispatch offices. It was John Patrick Raftery’s brother Jimmy’s last tour as Bronx Dispatcher before he retired. I had always intended to stop by dispatch but hadn’t ever actually made it before today.

One of the bosses was just leaving. She recognized me as I was walking in the parking lot and stopped to say that she was so glad a chaplain came by. She walked me back in and introduced me around to the folks who had worked the fire.

Jimmy (Dispatcher 150) managed the fire calmly and brilliantly. I had listened to him throughout the afternoon. I got to talk with the call takers who described some of the voices they had heard on the other end of the line.

I’m piloting a new approach to being a chaplain in the midst of a super awful traumatic situation. A lot of the job is listening. Really, most of the job is listening.

Occasionally, when I’m called to say something, it’s usually mirroring back and legitimating the experience of the person involved, which if truth be told is usually quite horrific.

In short, to use the vernacular, I say something which approximates “oh s*%t, that’s really messed up.”

I know, it’s probably not the kind of language that’s becoming a chaplain. And perhaps you have some fancy flowy faith language that might work.

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Anyway, as I was driving home wondering if my sermon was a lie, I realized that it isn’t a lie at all.

I absolutely believe that God was there with each and every person involved in today’s fire. And if I have to prove it I most certainly can.

Because a lapsed Catholic and a atheist Jew and someone who says she’s a Christian but admits she hasn’t been to church in a long time all answered phone calls and were present and listened to people on the other end of the phone. They dispatched fire and EMS units. So many units.

These people showed up and gave their all and were truly present with each and every patient.

As I was on my way home, I got a text from an EMS Chief asking me to stop by a station and check in on some folks. They were restocking their supplies and talking about the call, the fire. The evening news came on and they were busting the chops of one of the guys who was in the footage. “Dude! You’re national! Heck you’re international now!”

I mentioned that they weren’t far off. I had gotten texts from people all over expressing concern and offering prayers. I read them some of the locations — Peru, California, New Jersey, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard.

They looked kind of suprised when I said that thousands of people were praying for them, and I had received notes from just a small fraction of them.

So yes, I think that the Holy was present throughout today. And that God weeps with us in the midst of such sorrow.

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Ann Kansfield is a chaplain with the FDNY and pastor of the Greenpoint Reformed Church. She is author of the book Be The Brave One, available now. 

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This article was originally published at Rev. Kansfield's Facebook Page. Reprinted with permission from the author.