Against the backdrop of clear blue skies, Louis Lacy’s familiar view of the beautiful Manhattan skyline would soon change forever.
Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a picturesque day. The changing foliage in the area’s parks announced the arrival of fall, a favorite time of year for Lacy. That morning, he reported to his volunteer assignment at what was then the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York.
His tranquility was interrupted not long after the start of his workday.
“The noise of impact and the immediate burst of fire and smell captured our attention,” said Lacy, who lives in Tyler.
He heard reports that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. “It seemed to be a colossal error.”
It was not until Lacy witnessed the second plane disappear into the South Tower that the magnitude of the situation became even more alarming.
“After the second plane hit, then this no longer became an error. It was deliberate, and that became very concerning,” Lacy said.
Twenty years after 9/11, Lacy has not forgotten the images of people fleeing Manhattan, running for safety across the bridge — straight in his direction.
“People were in chaos, not knowing what was going on,” he said. “These types of events left a huge scar and a sense of vulnerability.”
Relief came from reaching out to help others who were struggling as he was.
“I was determined to do what I could. People wanted answers and they wanted comfort,” Lacy said.
The ministry that Lacy had shared in for years as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses took on a new role for him. He derived happiness from helping others, and his conscious efforts to offer comfort to those in his community fortified his faith.
“It helped me reconfirm the hope that I have,” Lacy 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 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, 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 to 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 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, Lacy, now alongside his wife, Brenda, continues to find comfort from reaching out from his home in Tyler — this time by comforting pandemic-stressed neighbors through letters and telephone calls. Jehovah’s Witnesses paused their in-person preaching in response to the pandemic in March 2020.
Concerning their efforts to assist others, Lacy said, “It’s not just keeping us busy or distracting us just to endure. It’s purposeful, helping others.”
Brenda added, “It helps you not to focus too much on yourself.”
Payne feels the same. In 2016, after 50 years of marriage, he lost his 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 Jehovah’s Witnesses website.
“Encouraging others to look to the future helps me to do the same,” he said.