America's Good Samaritans: Selfless Sacrifice and Heroism

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America's Good Samaritans

Selfless Sacrifice and Heroism

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Okay, there's a group of us and we're going to do something," said the voice on the phone. Remarkably, Tom Burnett had been able to phone his wife, Deena, while aboard ill-fated United Airlines Flight 93. The other resolute passengers included Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick. Passengers Lou Nacke and Donald Greene, the latter a trained pilot, are also believed to have been involved. Together the group was probably instrumental in forcing the plane to crash in rural Pennsylvania rather than strike an intended target in Washington, D.C.-perhaps, as many believe, the White House or Capitol.

Ground zero-site of the World Trade Center towers' meltdown and collapse-was a living hell. Televised images and reports of the unbelievable devastation couldn't describe the terror, torture, confusion and carnage thousands experienced that day.

Yet out of the white dust-concrete pulverized into powder-and over an estimated million tons of rubble, twisted girders and whole office floors, poured forth stories of selfless sacrifice and incredible heroism.

Out of the anguish, excruciation and deaths of thousands in New York City and Washington came countless stories that should cause us to reflect on the teachings of Jesus Christ-particularly His parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan

We find the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, where Jesus said that to inherit eternal life we must love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves. One man, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus whom he should consider to be his neighbor.

Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable would have been unexpected by those who heard it because the Jews of Jesus' day despised Samaritans. So why did He tell it?

The Good Samaritan story explains itself: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.

"So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.'"

"So which of these three," Jesus asked, "do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" And the man who had first asked the question responded: "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:30-37).

The traveler in Jesus' story was journeying from Jerusalem down to Jericho, a 17-mile trek descending 3,000 feet over rocky terrain, a dusty, rugged, bleak and dangerous road, with plenty of good places for robbers to hide. The thieves wounded and robbed him, even stealing the clothing off his body and leaving him "half dead."

In the parable a Jewish priest first saw the stricken traveler. He observed the man and walked on the other side of the road, being sure not to touch him, because if he touched a dead man he would have become ceremonially unclean. Ceremonial purity, not helping a brother, was more important for this priest.

Next to happen upon the injured man was a Levite. As a religious man, he also was interested in ceremonial purity. He judged it prudent not to get involved, and he, too, passed by on the opposite side.

Jesus then introduced the Samaritan, providing a twist to the story because a Samaritan would be the last person those in Christ's audience would expect to help the injured man.

The Samaritan had compassion on the sufferer. He attended to the man on the spot, using wine and olive oil to treat his wounds. Since the victim was too weak to walk, the Samaritan set him on his own beast of burden and brought him to an inn to take care of him.

Yet even then the Samaritan didn't assume that his duty was done. He had to leave, so he paid the innkeeper some money on account and asked him to look after the man. Based on the rate of exchange and economy of the time, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper, in advance, for about two months' board. He then assured him that if funds were needed beyond this he would be good for it.

This, said Jesus, is what loving your neighbor entails. The Samaritan of Christ's parable depicted a person who did more than the minimum, more than was required. His attitude typified human goodness.

This is where the acts of selfless service and fearless heroism come into focus, both at the World Trade Center and on the jet that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. We now know there were other countless acts of selfless service, sacrifice and heroism. Let's review a few as a reminder of the kind of selflessness Jesus talked about.

Selfless sacrifice

On Sept. 11 and during the following weeks, millions of Americans united to give blood, food, drink and comfort. If that were not enough, some even gave their lives so that others might live-as happened on Flight 93.

President Bush, in his remarks on the national day of prayer and remembrance Sept. 14, mentioned several acts of selflessness.

"... We have seen our national character in eloquent acts of sacrifice," he said. "Inside the World Trade Center, one man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend. A beloved priest died giving the last rites to a firefighter. Two office workers, finding a disabled stranger, carried her down 68 floors to safety. A group of men drove through the night from Dallas to Washington to bring skin grafts for burn victims."

The Sept. 24 issue of Time magazine contained other accounts of people caught in the World Trade Center disaster. An unknown hero named Paul helped save Genelle Guzman.

Miss Guzman, 31, was an office manager who worked on the 64th floor of Tower 1. When the havoc broke loose after the first plane exploded in the tower, she stayed put as per announced instructions. She started down the stairs only after word came to evacuate the building.

Incredibly, when she reached floor 13 the building collapsed and Miss Guzman's head became wedged between two pillars. Beside her was a man also trapped. She heard him cry out twice, then he was silent. Crying out to God, she asked for a second chance in life. She saw nothing but darkness and dust. She said another prayer: "Please just give me this one miracle."

Suddenly above her a man appeared, "a saint named Paul, who lifted her from the rubble. Twenty-six hours had passed" (Time, p. 70). At Bellevue Hospital, Miss Guzman's head was swollen and her legs required surgery, but doctors expect full recovery. The compassionate stranger showed the love and concern of the Good Samaritan.

Good Samaritan Ronnie Clifford, 47, an architect who was a hero and blessed to be a survivor, helped save Jennie-ann Maffeo, an asthmatic who was allergic to latex. Mr. Clifford was standing in the Marriott Hotel's lobby inside the Trade Center complex after the first plane hit one of the towers. Out of the pyre Mr. Clifford saw "a charred woman rise, her fingernails melting off and her clothes burned onto her skin" (Time, p. 71).

He shielded her with his coat when a second shudder dropped them to the floor. To combat shock, Mr. Clifford did his best to keep her alert. They talked and prayed together. Finally he led her to a nearby ambulance, Miss Maffeo's charred skin clinging to his coat. From there he ran west and boarded a ferry to go home to Glen Ridge, New Jersey, where he hugged his wife and 11-year-old daughter.

Later Mr. Clifford learned that he had lost his sister and niece in one of the jets that had plowed into one of the towers. Amazingly, while he was grieving, he still contacted Miss Maffeo's employer, who telephoned her family to inform her relatives of her condition.

When she was reunited with her family, she determined to track down the man who had saved her life. While consoling his own family in Ireland, Mr. Clifford received a phone call from Miss Maffeo's sister. The sister gave Mr. Clifford the family's thanks for putting himself at risk to save her sister. Consistent with his heroics and sacrifice, "Clifford replied that she had it wrong-he never would have made it out of the building before it collapsed if he had not picked up her sister. 'The truth is, she saved my life, she gave me strength'" (Time, p. 73).

'A lot of heroes'

Capt. Pat Brown, 48, was a highly decorated fireman. After a stint in Vietnam, he returned home in 1973 with many medals and with a bellyful of anger and dared anyone to knock the chip off his shoulder. He credits the New York City fire department for saving his life.

The department became his life. He was known for spectacular rescues. One day he even chased down a mugger in Central Park while exercising. He taught blind people self-defense.

"Last Tuesday [Sept. 11] his company got the call to go to the World Trade Center," reported Time. "Fire fighter Brandon Gill says someone yelled, 'Don't go in there, Paddy!' But Brown called back, 'Are you nuts? We've got a job to do!' and rushed up the stairs of the north tower with his men ..." (Time, p. 75). In Capt. Brown's rush to save lives, he lost his own.

Roko Camaj, 60, lived among the clouds. As a window cleaner for the World Trade Center, his workspace offered a panoramic view of New York City. He loved his job, dangerous though it was. "Camaj was on the observation deck on the 107th floor in 1993 when a bomb hit the building. It took him 21/2 hours to descend by stair, his mouth covered with one of his damp sponges, his doffed shirt covering the mouth of a pregnant woman he escorted down. He was back at work the next day."

On Sept. 11 Mr. Camaj called his wife at 9:14 a.m. He was on the 105th floor of the south tower. His son Vincent related his father's last words: "He told my mom he was with about 200 other people, and he was just waiting for the O.K. to head down. He told her not to worry, we're all in God's hands" (Time, p. 69). It was the last time they heard his voice.

A final story must be told about Michael Hingson, a blind man, and his yellow Labrador named Roselle. Mr. Hingson was on the 78th floor of the south tower when the chaos started. Although his dog was afraid of thunder, she appeared not to be afraid of the sound of the jets crashing and the collapse of the two towers. She was calm throughout the tragedies and their aftermath. "We moved fairly swiftly until we hit about the 40th floor. Then things got kind of jammed-a lot of stopping and starting," he said.

Miraculously, Mr. Hingson and Roselle both made it to safety. "Roselle was a hero for helping me to safety. But there were a lot of heroes out there. Everyone helped each other-down the stairwell, on the street-and everyone stuck together. We're all alive because of that. Everyone did what had to be done, and things were amazingly orderly" (Time, p. 84).

Back to normal?

All those who expressed their willingness to help others in their hour of need are to be commended. But will this spirit continue, or will it dissipate as has happened too many times before?

Shortly after the atrocities, author Max Lucado raised this point about human nature.

"Is this normal?" he asked. "Four thousand gathered for midday prayer in a downtown cathedral. A New York City church filled and emptied six times last Tuesday. The owner of a Manhattan tennis-shoe store threw open his doors and gave running shoes to those fleeing the towers. People stood in lines to give blood, in hospitals to treat the sick, in sanctuaries to pray for the wounded. America was different this week. We wept for people we did not know. We sent money to families we've never seen. Talk-show hosts read scriptures, journalists printed prayers.

"Our focus shifted from fashion hemlines and box scores to orphans and widows and the future of the world. We were different this week. Republicans stood next to Democrats. Catholics prayed with Jews. Skin color was covered by the ash of burning towers. This is a different country than it was a week ago. We're not as self-centered as we were. We're not as self-reliant as we were. Hands are out. Knees are bent. This is not normal. And I have to ask the question, 'Do we want to go back to normal?'

"Are we being given a glimpse of a new way of life? Are we, as a nation, being reminded that the enemy is not each other and the power is not in ourselves and the future is not in our bank accounts? Could this unselfish prayerfulness be the way God intended for us to live all along? Maybe this, in his eyes, is the way we are called to live. And perhaps the best response to this tragedy is to refuse to go back to normal.

"Perhaps the best response is to follow the example of Tom Burnett. He was a passenger of Flight 93. Minutes before the plane crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania he reached his wife by cell phone. 'We're all going to die,' he told her, 'but . . . [a group of us] are going to do something about it.'

"We can do something about it as well. We can resolve to care more. We can resolve to pray more. And we can resolve that, God being our helper, we'll never go back to normal again."

For those who want to do more, who don't want to be just normal again, this is what they can do: They can humble themselves before God, seek through prayer and Bible study to know His will and surrender to Him. That's a big step for anyone in a world that is often traveling exactly the opposite way. But it is doable. With God's help all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Let us never forget to thank God for His desire and design to help all mankind be saved from extinction (1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9). God will intervene in the affairs of man and save us from ourselves and comfort us. Christ quoted a prophecy about Himself from Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18).

Therein lies America's future and the future of all of mankind. Let's pray for God's Kingdom to come to earth (Matthew 6:10) to bring unprecedented peace and unparalleled prosperity, just as Scripture promised mankind 2,000 years ago: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 2:14).

In the future global Garden of Eden, the world will be filled with Good Samaritans. That God guarantees.