'Our church was a place of refuge for many in the city'
A New York pastor, whose church was a haven of peace for many after 9/11, tells Leona O'Neill how he plans to bring the same hope to Belfast during a special prayer event next week
New York has spent the last 18 years healing after 9/11. And David Ham - a pastor at the Times Square Church in midtown - has been right at the centre of that process.
The 44-year-old, who is married to Tara and has three children, says his church is at the heart of a city which is at the heart of the world, "like a lighthouse in a storm".
"We are smack in the middle of everything in Times Square," he says. "We are in the centre of it all here in New York. In what many still refer to as the capital city of the world, we are right here on Broadway, midtown Manhattan.
"We always like to refer to ourselves as a lighthouse in the middle of the storm. It's a whirlwind here in New York City. There is a lot going on in Manhattan and here on Times Square. But our church is alive and well.
"Our congregation represents the entire Tri-State area, from New York to New Jersey to Connecticut. They represent all five boroughs of New York City.
"One of the most incredible testimonies of our church is that we are multicultural and multi-ethnic and multi-racial. So, we actually represent over 100 different nationalities in our church body. We have Europeans, south Americans, Africans, Central Americans, you name it, from all over the globe."
David says that no one in his congregation escaped heartache from the events of 9/11.
He says that, in the days which followed the atrocity, his congregation - many of whom are firefighters, police officers and other first responders - flooded the area and helped where they could. Others brought food, water and supplies.
He says the church became a refuge for those seeking peace and "confirmation that God was still with them in the darkness".
"The World Trade Centre is a little more downtown and we are in Midtown," he says. "I wasn't there when 9/11 happened, although I was still very much connected with Times Square Church. I was travelling at the time. But I came into the church in the days afterwards.
"The impact of 9/11 and the involvement that Times Square Church had in response to that is still a beautiful story to be told and very much a part of our legacy going forward.
"Times Square Church sent teams downtown after 9/11 to be of support, providing manpower, resources, food and water. And because our church is very large, we have police officers and fire officers and medical personnel among our congregation. So, everyone chipped in and everyone made themselves available.
"But, also, what was really special, too, was that Times Square Church also became a place of refuge for many in the city. It was a place to come and find rest and take time to pray, to mourn with those who were mourning and to have just a sense of hope through the most difficult of times in our city.
"Historically, we often reflect on that time, where the house was not only filled from one end to the other with regards to seats, but people sitting in the aisles. There was no room in our services. There was a desperation to come in and to know that God was still with us in the most difficult of days.
"And the scripture tells us to mourn with those who mourn and that happened in a place where it was safe to cry together, it was safe to stand and be of comfort to one another. It was beautiful. And we continue to be that place - even for many today."
He adds: "By the grace of God, no one from our congregation passed away in 9/11. But just about everyone from our congregation knew someone who was affected by 9/11, either friends or family members. There was grief and there was pain in our congregation, knowing someone who had passed away, friends and loved ones."
David says that, in times of trouble and darkness, more people turned to God and his church was packed to capacity for services and people tried to make sense of the carnage.
"For us, after such a horrific tragedy, we saw many people turn to God," he says. "In moments like that, people will either blame God, or turn to God. But I have often found that those who blame God find themselves very bitter, not having their questions answered. And that bitterness just takes them into a further place of sorrow and pain.
"But those who turn to God find hope in the worst of times and they find rest and peace of mind, knowing that God is going to give us the grace to continue to move forward and overcome tragedy and pain and hardship."
David, after seeing at first hand the level of destruction and pain that hatred and terrorism can inflict, says he hopes to bring New York's sense of hope and resilience to Northern Ireland this week in a special Alive Belfast event at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle.
"I'm excited to share the good news of Jesus," he says. "Oftentimes, many have made the gospel complicated. But it is not. It is simply God's love for people. My hope is that people will find freedom, knowing that they are loved, that God is alive and that He cares. There is no greater hope than the hope that we find in the love of God.
"When I look out from one city to the next and one country to the next, it is amazing how we continue to find hope and freedom within ourselves. And if it was truly there within ourselves, there would have been this great peace finally. But there continues to be brokenness and pain and hardship among families, broken marriages and children that are wayward and struggling and lost. There continue to be countries that are dying and falling apart.
"We have to stop looking horizontally and we have to look up vertically and recognise that there is a God above who has extended His hand through the love of His son Jesus, who came and died for us. This is not something that we can grasp hold of and hold on based on feelings. It has to be a faith in God. Feelings will always disappoint, but our faith in God takes us and brings us to a greater hope.
"I want this to resonate through Belfast. There is a growing level of destruction and despair and darkness. We were not created to live like that. The answer to despair, the answer to depression, the answer to darkness and destruction is Christ.
"We were created to overcome the darkness with the light of Christ that is within us and I am so excited to share this freedom message with Belfast.
"I am really focused on the mission. I am there to serve. I am coming as God's messenger and I am going to preach hope at every moment I can."
- Pastor David Ham is guest speaker at the Alive Belfast event at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, which runs from Saturday, September 7 to Wednesday, September 11. For more information, go to www.metropolitan-tabernacle.org