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Mike MacIntosh Shares Lessons from Ground Zero

  • Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
  • Published Jan 27, 2003
Mike MacIntosh Shares Lessons from Ground Zero

He is a pastor and evangelist with a vision to win people to Jesus Christ, disciple them in Christ, and send them out for Christ. This threefold evangelistic vision has been strongly reflected in every area of his work at Horizon Chrisitan Fellowship in San Diego, California. In addition, Mike MacIntosh knows how to tackle a crisis.

As chaplain for the San Diego Police Department, MacIntosh has faced down fear and death. As a member of the national Spiritual Care in Aviation Response (SAIR) team, he provides spiritual care to the victims and families of airline disasters, in coordination with the American Red Cross.

And it was while on call for SAIR that MacIntosh found himself at Ground Zero, providing care for firefighters at the World Trade Center site in New York City. His recent book When Your World Falls Apart: Life Lessons from a Ground Zero Chaplain relates that tragedy to ones we all face throughout the course of daily life - the illnesses, financial disasters, family conflicts and divorces.  MacIntosh shared a few of those lesson in the following interview.

Crosswalk.com: Ok well what we wanted to do um I’m going to be running an excerpt from the book ah When Your World Falls Apart but I also wanted to include like the day before an interview with you so that people can uh learn a little bit about you and your life a bit. I just wanted to check you’re still the pastor of Horizon Christian Fellowship, is that correct? And do you still do work for the San Diego Police Department?


Mike MacIntosh: Yes I do.


Crosswalk.com: And what led you to that kind of work?


Mike MacIntosh: Uh actually when I first started in San Diego I uh as a pastor and our church was growing so fast I thought that maybe I should be more involved in the community and instead of being in a social club like Lions or Rotary or something (opportunity?) to be a reserve police officer and I thought maybe I could be more effective that way.  So I started out as a reserve officer and then as a number of years went by uh I helped establish a full-time chaplain (?) they saw the need for it.


Crosswalk.com: Right. So you have no prior police background uh before you became a pastor?


Mike MacIntosh: Right.


Crosswalk.com: Ok. Um and then you said that you have some advanced training and so forth in crisis work did that just evolved out of a natural need?


Mike MacIntosh: Right that just evolved, the more I got involved uh it was just part of the training that was necessary when Oklahoma City happened uh I had a friend that was a former director of the FBI and I contacted him and he said I know the guy in charge and feel free to go to Oklahoma City and introduce yourself and I’ll get in touch with him. And uh it was from there that I saw boy I need lots of training because it’s not just pastoral work in a situation like this this is a lot of grief counseling it’s a lot of emotional trauma for like many federal officers I spoke with I think one guy had been up forty-one hours when I first started talking to him another one had been up sixty-one hours


Crosswalk.com: Wow


Mike MacIntosh: (of sleep?) so uh it just became a whole new area of learning for me


Crosswalk.com: Yeah. So Oklahoma City was kind of the first national um disaster that you um worked with?


Mike MacIntosh: Yes, hmm-mm.


Crosswalk.com: In terms of Ground Zero, um they, you were called upon to go there, is that right?


Mike MacIntosh: Yes.


Crosswalk.com: You’re part of the national response team?

Mike MacIntosh: Yes uh, I’m part of a team called the SIR team S-A-I-R


Crosswalk.com: Ok.


Mike MacIntosh: That’s all in caps, it’s uh a team that was started by uh actually which is  kind of cool, the uh Congress passed a resolution a few years back that any American citizen who was involved in an air incident they had the right to spiritual care. So they uh gave the authority to National Transportation Safety Board to instigate this and the NTSB contracted with the American Red Cross and so the Red Cross looked for originally uh there was twenty-six police chaplains, you had to have a Masters Degree, uh be a  Law enforce- uh certified law enforcement chaplain, and uh have critical incidents stress management courses which I qualified for those three so I was one of the first in that first team of twenty-six that were trained and then you take a month out of the year, originally it was two months, but because of 9/11 we realized how horrible that toll was on you and we think one year, my month I chose was September.  So they send you a pager, got a pager for that whole month, and it just happened that was my month when the planes hit the tower.  Um I was paged less than an hour after they hit.


Crosswalk.com: Yeah. Wow. Definitely God’s hand in that.


Mike MacIntosh: Yeah.


Crosswalk.com: Um, You know, we’re, we’re now over a year later you know do you is there a day that goes by I mean do you think of Ground Zero and your experience there daily or how you know or like where are you at kind of mentally and emotionally with your experience there?


Mike MacIntosh: That’s a nice question. Um I don’t think about it probably daily. I did uh first eight nine months and then I had a breakthrough with it what I do probably on a daily basis is I do compare things in life to Ground Zero otherwise I don’t let petty things get to me like they used to because I say compared to Ground Zero this is nothing. And uh I don’t let petty people or petty incidences get me uptight or upset uh because I realize that was probably one of the ugliest things in mankind’s history so I want to live so that my life is lived at a higher level than worrying about pettiness.


Crosswalk.com: Right. Wow, that’s so true. Um you know in the months immediately following where there things that kind of haunted you or that you had trouble dealing with?


Mike MacIntosh: Yeah. Not in a real scary, negative way but uh this, this is true of everyone who worked there if you worked any time, if you just walked on the scene and said oh this is ugly that’s one thing, but like we were there the first uh within three days and were working immediately with the families at the assistance center and then establishing law enforcement chaplains at the morgue and uh Ground Zero, setting up the law enforcement chaplains there. And uh I think it was to the day, ninety days after 9/11 that I was somewhere and I thought oh hey these are the kind of thoughts, these are normal thoughts that I’m finally having like I used to before I went, so it was sort of a breakthrough for me at that. Uh and I don’t have post traumatic stress syndrome or anything like that, I know a lot of people do and I’m very sensitive to them about that.


Crosswalk.com: Um what was the hardest part of being there for you?


Mike MacIntosh: The hardest part for me personally was the grief uh I mean not not from me but seeing the grief of the people involved. Uh there was uh like the first grief was unbelievable the amount of grief there was in the family assistance center of the people who were coming to bring some DNA sample of their loved one. They were just destroyed. And that was just hard to watch. Um we put in you know fourteen hour days sixteen hour days and and there’s no way we would stop helping them.  Then uh the second grief was uh the people that worked the police officers, the fire fighters, the paramedics to see the grief on their faces just uh down at Ground Zero or the ones working at the morgue it was just inhuman um the the pain and my heart goes out to helping people so I see this pain, and I think, well I’m not going to bed very early so I’m staying here as long as all this team is staying here.   That was probably the hardest, was uh the fact that the ugliness was over in my mind it was what can I personally do to help these that are suffering right now and then I had never seen, I’ve seen a lot of suffering in my life, but I’d never seen that type of grief before. 


Crosswalk.com: Uh is there something that you can say was your most rewarding moment or some good that came out of it you know for you personally?


Mike MacIntosh: Yeah, uh a lot actually.  I became friends with uh members of the NY Police Department uh some of been to our house and stayed with us. I’ve become friends with survivors who lost loved ones in the uh towers.  That’s uh very, extremely rewarding. Um then uh this past August, I was able to take 1500 Christians from all over the United States and bring them to New York City (?) for five days and led 23 hundred and 50 people to the Lord.


Crosswalk.com: Oh, that was you? Ok you know I remember reading about that.


Mike MacIntosh: (Gospel Life?)Uh-huh. And um that was extremely rewarding because I realized that I was interviewed by a journalist while we were there and he said “what do you think about all this happening?” And I said “Well to me it tells me that the terrorists lost, because I would not be here with this team had those towers not come down and uh we we led to the Lord almost as many as died in the towers that day.


Crosswalk.com: That’s incredible.


Mike MacIntosh: So the terrorists have actually lost their battle.


Crosswalk.com: Wow. What a great perspective. Um I’m kind of shifting gears a little bit because I’m not going to uh you know make you talk about everything that’s in the book um but I started reading and I was about halfway through and I just think that’s also a great gift that’s come out of your you know for you to take lessons from there and to apply that to just anybody’s life you know that, um I mean I’m getting a lot out of reading it.


Mike MacIntosh: That is a blessing because when uh when I was asked if I had a book, I was going to meet with the publisher after 9/11 unrelated to this book and the publisher said uh (the acquisition editor?)said is there anything in your heart that you’re thinking of that maybe we haven’t discussed I said it’d be really cool to take lessons I learned from Ground Zero and share them with people and their everyday lives they said Great idea well I only had seven weeks to write it


Crosswalk.com: Wow.


Mike MacIntosh: Anne Graham told me she takes like a year to two years to write. And she said when you finish this Mike you’ve got to write a book on how to write a book in nine weeks or less.


Crosswalk.com: There you go.


Mike MacIntosh: Um, yeah, one of the great blessings, there was a lady, uh a man in the book that I mentioned  his name is Al Bracka who uh worked for sixteen years for Cantor Fitzgerald and uh had somewhat of a miserable job but uh he led 50 people to the Lord before he died. Many witnesses said they were praying in a circle just before the building collapsed and uh Sandy and I have become friends with his wife and she read the book and wrote me and just said it brought healing to her heart and that just, that statement from that lady uh you know made it all worth it.


Crosswalk.com: Hmm. Wow. The last thing is, and this is again shifting gears on you a little bit but also kind of taking that you know what would you say to a certain person but you know as as we are getting you know increasingly close to possibly another war situation or just even you know like for example the sniper attacks in DC and the threat of terrorism and there’s a lot of people living in fear you know how you know how I mean do you see any of that and what would you say to that person who’s just living in that with that threat hanging over their head?


Mike MacIntosh: We’re living in a time of uncertainty.  And uh we have unresolved issues in our country, and part of those unresolved issues are with God and how we believe and our faith system. George (Barna?) did a um survey, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this or not, he did six surveys starting in August of 2001 so actually he started a month before 9/11. And he completed in August 2002. He found out that Americans are more complacent about faith than they were before 9/11 and that the uh the attendance that was in the churches for the ninety days after 9/11 that were so large , not new people coming, but irregular churchgoers coming back and then they faded out. So I would like to say to that person that may be struggling in this fear, that this is a very common uh feeling, very normal that they are feeling this because a nation has a psyche just like an individual and so we’ve had a psyche trauma, and our mind has been jolted, we’ve been knocked out of the ordinary and this is part of terrorism they like to do that, so they’re not crazy, they’re having pretty normal thoughts actually but they don’t need to fear because the Bible says God uh is not the author of fear and God hasn’t given us fear, but He’s given us the Spirit of love, power and a sound mind.  And uh those thoughts of fear we should just turn to Him and the Lord will remove them, but they’re very normal in an unstable situation like this so the person can’t think that they’re crazy oh I’m nuts because I’m thinking I’m, you know I’m fearful of this and that’s pretty normal cause we don’t know when the next attack will come or where it will come so those are very normal reactions to this.


Crosswalk.com: Right.  Um you know if and when there is another attack will you be involved in in also doing crisis work or have you kind of I mean are you still part of the national response team and all that?


Mike MacIntosh: Yes I am. And then I’m part of of the team in San Diego which is America’s sixth largest city.  Uh I’m part of the team that responds, like we had a high school shooting here a couple of those I respond to those things, so um I’ve thought of that a few times maybe I just want to back away from this but I realize the great importance and it’s very fulfilling to know that there are every day people like your mom and dad and my uncles and aunts and just regular people who respond to these incidences as their jobs.  The firefighters, the police officers, the paramedics and they need people to love them.  It has nothing to do with religion.  I just saw a twenty-two year old woman uh one night as I was trying to minister to a cop who was somewhat suicidal uh I watched her over his shoulder we talked for forty minutes and I watched her for forty minutes she did nothing but stare at the pile at Ground Zero and they had gone several hours without finding a body or body part and I realized that she was pretty well tripped out and when I finished with that officer I walked over to her and started talking to her and she recognized that I was a chaplain she said “do you think I need help” and I said “well it’s funny you say that, I’ve been watching you for forty minutes and you haven’t moved your head uh but two times maybe.” And she said, “Well what do I do? I just don’t, I’m not thinking right.” And uh when I see something like that, I almost forget about myself I want to go and help whoever wants help. So yeah I’ll be involved.


Mike MacIntosh: Thank you very much. I appreciate this opportunity.




Click here to read an excerpt from When Your World Falls Apart: Life Lessons from a Ground Zero Chaplain, (c) 2002 by Mike MacIntosh.