Evangelicals bring spiritual comfort to Big Apple

Billy Graham followers and others set up missions for New Yorkers

On the first day of their visit from Texas, the Riebel family stayed up all night, serving hash browns to rescue workers at the site of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens.

In the following days, they comforted strangers on Wall Street and offered doughnuts to police officers guarding ground zero after midnight.

Abbe and Brian Riebel and his mother, Maureen, have come to New York from their 320-acre family ranch and landscape business with their Boerne, Texas, Baptist church - one of dozens of congregations that since the Sept. 11 attacks have heeded the Rev. Billy Graham's call to bring compassion from afar.

"It's a different culture than Texas," admits their pastor, the Rev. Charles "Bubba" Stahl. And yet, evangelicals like Mr. Stahl say they've found an eager - sometimes desperate - audience in what they once considered a capital of sin.

One New Yorker called Billy Graham's new prayer-center hotline after losing his brother on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center. The caller's mother had died shortly after she heard the news, and he had turned to alcohol again.

The director of the prayer center, Fred Baye, met a New York City police officer who had seen his partner killed by a falling body as they fled the scene of the attack. Now, the officer can't sleep nights and fights constantly with his wife. He told Mr. Baye that he would be better off dead.

"The city feels violated, their house has been attacked," says Mr. Baye, who moved from Albany, N.Y., to open Graham's first permanent New York City outpost. "They're all questioning their futures, their security."

Graham first preached in New York 44 years ago during a 16-week revival at Madison Square Garden. This time, his son and fellow minister, Franklin Graham, came to New York with 20 employees of his Samaritan's Purse relief group, based in North Carolina, and his father's Minnesota staff.

They've fielded more than 1,000 calls from New Yorkers since Sept. 22. Volunteers have distributed about 100,000 pieces of literature, posters, and Bibles on the streets with pictures of the towers exploding under the title "Why?" or "Fallen but not forgotten." In all, the operation costs about $150,000 a month.

Inside a small room stuffed with eight phones and facing an alley, four people wait for calls. Operators trained in biblical counseling offer passages of Scripture and referrals to local churches. Mostly, though, they just listen.

Richard and Carla Patzke from Titusville, Fla., man the call center while waiting for a face-to-face counseling session with a woman who was reminded of her own childhood abuse while watching bodies fall from the trade center.

"Jesus Christ is an integral part of the healing process," Mr. Patzke says. "That relationship forms an important foundation." Meanwhile, at the cramped midtown offices of the Harvest Christian Fellowship, near Carnegie Hall, volunteers from churches across the country prepare for another day of street missions.

"I'm from the countryside and thought we walk a lot, but that's not true," says Randy Miller, who skipped his honeymoon to come to New York from his small hometown in southern Illinois. "I have a new appreciation for city life and the people who live here."

About 100 volunteers from a dozen states chuckle and shake their heads in agreement. The biggest challenge for many was navigating the subways.

Another thousand Southern Baptists have paid their own way to New York to help scrub apartments so the displaced can move back home.

Local evangelical churches, too, have heeded the call. On Long Island, the youth group at the Bethlehem Assembly of God handed out 2,000 cans of soda and Billy Graham literature outside local high schools. They also mailed condolence cards to local residents who had lost someone at the World Trade Center.

"It's easier to speak to people" than before the attack, says Tom Wiermann, who attends a local university. "Their hearts are softer."

It's usually not so easy.

"New Yorkers tend to be rather jaded and suspicious of anyone peddling their faith," says Randall Balmer, a Columbia University professor who has written a history of the American evangelical culture. "But New Yorkers, like all Americans, are spiritual seekers. At least some of them are open to this approach."

On this morning, as other volunteers head toward the Staten Island Ferry and Rockefeller Center for street missions, the Riebels' team of seven Texans and Canadians set out for ground zero. The only native New Yorker is Maureen Riebel, who grew up on Long Island but hadn't returned much since she left for college decades ago.

When, during services last month, Stahl announced that the church would send two teams to New York, both Mr. Riebel and his mother decided they wanted to go. "I'm just trying to show someone cares about them. I'm hoping they'll see Christ in me. I'm hoping I'm just a tiny seed," says Mrs. Riebel, who usually spends most days on the family ranch among cows, horses, peacocks, and deer.

The church voted to send Stahl to New York in September to find a Manhattan church it could help. He'd previously led church missions to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa.

Twenty-five of his church members signed up, and the rest of the thousand-strong congregation raised $20,000 to help underwrite the mission and promised to pray for New Yorkers who request help. Each person paid $400 to make the trip, and the church paid the rest.

Michael Mason, a consultant with Accenture, says he used a week of vacation days "to see what God has in store for me." He adds, "It's a chance to serve and I just wanted to help out." He has left behind his wife and infant daughter.

Most of the church's volunteers were already trained by Graham's ministry. Many had previously performed missionary work in border towns along the Rio Grande. None, though, could imagine racing to the crash site in Queens, where Flight 587 fell.

On the subway through Manhattan three days later, they make small talk to passengers. "Were you inside your office?" Brian Riebel asks one rider. No one responds with hostility.

First, they stop at Nino's restaurant, a small Italian eatery where the church crews help serve free meals to uniformed service members.

"Would you like us to pray for you?" Maureen asks as she pats one police officer on the shoulder. "Keep me in your prayers," the patrol officer says.

Next, they start their walk up Broadway, past the twin towers' burned-out skeleton. Pastor Stahl calls it "friendship evangelism": They don't try to pass out literature or aggressively approach pedestrians.

Abbe and Brian Riebel stop in front of City Hall to talk to two African immigrants. Maureen Riebel stands facing away 20 feet down the street, silently praying for their success.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.