Chaplain shares ground zero experience with congregation – Potomac News Online

A volunteer chaplain with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Rev. Steve Lee has seen his share of disasters.

At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., he helped carry out the bodies of victims in April 1999.

And yet nothing could prepare Lee for the carnage he encountered at ground zero in Manhattan when he arrived the Friday after Sept. 11.

“As a chaplain and a minister, I’ve been in many disasters, including airplane crashes. And yet this was the most violent thing I’d ever seen,” he said.

Lee came to Grace Lutheran Church on Longview Drive in Woodbridge on Saturday to tell his story, as well as to offer advice to local public safety workers who encounter stress day in and day out.

Since 1996, Lee had been executive director of Peace Officer Ministries Inc., a California-based organization dedicated to providing spiritual guidance to police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

Bryan Meckes, an Alexandria paramedic and member of Grace Lutheran’s congregation, said he believes the organization plays an essential role.

One of the first on the scene at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, he found himself in the difficult situation of having to set up triage at the site of an enormous disaster.

After the initial shock of the event wore off, all Meckes could feel was anger at the terrorists who had crashed an airliner into the building.

“To understand that sort of feeling in the context of God’s love, God’s forgiveness for all, is extremely helpful. You’ve got to be grounded in God’s word in order to survive sometimes,” Meckes said.

The troubles police, firefighters and paramedics face are no mystery for Lee. Before becoming an ordained Lutheran minister in 1988, Lee served as a police officer.

“Police, fire and rescue personnel have a unique culture that the general public often doesn’t understand. And I see part of my role as trying to educate the general public and give them a window into the lives of these people who play such an important role,” he said.

Lee also has sought to provide religious guidance to public safety workers. Police officers, he points out, have higher rates of alcoholism, divorce and suicide than the general population. Their life expectancy is lower.

Sometimes, the job eclipses all other aspects of a person’s life. And Lee seeks to remind public safety workers, who often see the worst of humanity, that there are things in life to cherish.

“Our first identity is as a Christian and our relationship to God. And then we have our identities as a wife or a parent or a son or a daughter or a friend,” he said.

Lee’s quest to minister to public safety workers has made him part of a small, informal network of religious men and women who go to disaster sites, ministering to those in need of spiritual guidance.

At ground zero, Lee found rescue workers, new to the scene, who left for the site hoping to do good, only to come back 12 to 14 hours later beaten down and depressed. Even search-and-rescue dogs were having emotional problems.

In Building Six of the World Trade Center, rescue workers found that steel beams had formed a cross in the middle of an amphitheater of wreckage. The site became an informal chapel.

When Lee found out that construction crews were preparing to tear the building down, he successfully lobbied to have the cross removed and set up as a permanent shrine.

The cross, he said, is a symbol of the faith of those who worked ground zero, as well as a memorial to those who died there.

And for Lee, the work is not over.

“It’s important for officers to have God in their lives because no one can get through life alone,” he said.

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