On the morning of 9/11, Courtney Castillo and his wife Erica, who now reside in Porterville, watched in disbelief as the United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
“We thought it had been an accident,” Erica recalls, “until we heard the roaring of the second plane.”
Erica’s two sisters were among the thousands whose commute took them right into Manhattan. She remembers trying to reach them over jammed phone lines. “We did not have cell phones back then, so we had to wait and see,” she said.
Courtney and Erica felt an emotional silence fall over the once vibrant city in the days and weeks to follow, but relief came in the form of helping others.
They quickly reached out to the community and shared comforting passages from the Bible. The Christian ministry the Castillos participated in as Jehovah’s Witnesses helped them to work through their feelings as they brought hope to others. Courtney said, “Our ministry adjusted to a message of comfort because that is what everyone needed at the time.”
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.’”
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.
Two decades later, Courtney and Erica continue to find hope and comfort by helping others.
“Our ministry helps us stay grounded and helps us to focus on others,” said Courtney, who now reaches people through letters and telephone calls as Jehovah’s Witnesses paused their in-person preaching in response to the pandemic in March 2020.
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.