After 9/11, some found healing by helping

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Central Louisiana resident Brandon Ellis stood in disbelief as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded before his eyes. Living in Brooklyn at the time, that day he found himself driving a delivery truck about a mile from the World Trade Center. As the traffic came to a halt and drivers rushed onto the street, Ellis looked toward the horizon. “I could see the plane coming. It just kept getting closer, and there was nothing you could do,” he said. “Every second, people were getting more distraught, more panicked. It turned into chaos very quickly.” Ellis headed into the smoke in search of his wife, Verlin.

When the two were reunited, they made their way home on foot, observing indelible scenes throughout their neighborhood. “We saw people covered in ash, completely covered from head to toe, sitting in a corner shaking and rocking back and forth,” explained Verlin Ellis. In the days and months that followed, Verlin and Brandon Ellis, who themselves lost friends during the terrorist attacks, spent many hours reaching out to neighbors with consoling words from the Bible.

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Brandon Ellis revealed, “Helping others helped us cope during that time.” The ministry they had shared in for many years as Jehovah’s Witnesses took on a new role. As they shared hope with others, they too were comforted. “When you have hope, it makes it bearable,” said Verlin. 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, Fla. “He said, ‘I’m tired of picking up body parts.’”

This article published in the SEPT. 11, 2021, print edition

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 9/11 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, Brandon and Verlin Ellis, now living in Lecompte continue sharing hope with neighbors who are coping with the stresses of COVID-19 and frequent natural disasters. While their in-person ministry has paused during the pandemic, they regularly reach out to the community through letters and phone calls. Seeing others uplifted by the Bible’s message has been encouraging. “Many times it lifts them out of a place of despair,” explained Verlin. “That brings me a lot of joy.”

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. “Encouraging others to look to the future helps me to do the same,” he said.