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October 28, 2021
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After 9/11, some found healing by helping

  • Ruth Matera, a long-time North Bay resident, values her Bible-based volunteer work. Twenty years after the tragic events of 9/11, she finds joy in comforting others with a message of hope. Photo by Benjamin Wickham

By: Benjamin Wickham
September 17, 2021

In all the smoke and chaos, Ruth Matera lost her mother and presumed she was dead.

Matera, her mother, and sister were visiting Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and staying in a hotel just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. She heard an awful scream from her mother who witnessed debris falling outside. Matera ran down the stairs to see what happened. Her mother and sister quickly followed.

People were pouring into the hotel lobby from the street, many injured by the falling debris. Matera's instincts as a nurse took over, and she found some first aid supplies and began to treat the injured. "What I had been taught my whole life was to give of myself and to help other people," said Matera from Placerville.

In all the commotion, Matera and her sister were separated from their mother. She could not help but think the worst. "It was pretty traumatic at one point," Matera said. "I didn't know where she was, and I really presumed she had died." They were reunited with her mother the next day. 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 September 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.

While the events of 9/11 have understandably left their mark on Matera, she chooses to use her experience, as well as her compassion, to help others by means of her ministry work as one of Jehovah's Witnesses.

As a Bible teacher and friend to her students, she oftentimes sees the trials they face in their everyday lives. "I feel good that I can give them a little bit of relief and hope for the future," said Matera.

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.